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The Sea Hawk (1940): Errol Flynn Against The Spanish Armada

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Anyone who knows even a smidgeon about historical dates knows what the big to-do with 1588 is. If anything, 1588 automatically means the sinking of the Spanish Armada by Queen Elizabeth’s forces. So when a film opens in Spain in 1585 we already have a good idea of where we might be going. It’s the voyage to get there which matters most.

I can’t quite help but see the parallels between Spain and the Nazis aspirations for world domination. Because in the year 1585 there is a King in Spain named Phillip II who not unlike an incumbent dictator in 1940 was looking to conquer all of Europe with England being a priority.

With this historical backdrop, Warner Bros. gathers another classic ensemble anchored by Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz along with the steady support of Alan Hale. Following his debut as a film composer in Captain Blood (1935), Erich Wolfgang Korngold returns to similar waters to provide the scoring once more.

The film does feel empty without Olivia de Havilland but she was by this point fed up with playing second or third fiddle in swashbucklers. Be that as it may, Brenda Marshall (the future Mrs. William Holden). with a shining countenance, fills in swimmingly in one of her most prominent performances.

Leading his pride and joy The Albatross in the service of her majesty Queen Elizabeth, English captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) makes a glorious conquest of an enemy ship. The thrilling surf soaked cannonball-filled action picks up right in the same waters as Captain Blood.

He just happens to commandeer the boat carrying the Spanish ambassador (Claude Rains) across the English channels. It is the conniving man’s mission to ingratiate himself with the queen and being the two-faced scoundrel that he is, he finds Thorpe to be an incorrigible scoundrel.

Though he makes a monkey of court and her closest advisor Lord Wolfingham who seems quite sympathetic toward the Spaniards on a whole, Elizabeth is fond of Thorpe’s patriotic brand of cheekiness. Envisioning vast spoils at the hands of the Spanish, he takes on a clandestine mission off the record albeit with the Queen’s permission behind closed chamber doors.

Cloak and dagger countermeasures ensue as Don Jose looks to ensure that his mortal enemy will be cut off before he has any chance to do anything. Although initially turned off by the scoundrel, his daughter soon becomes enchanted by his chivalry even as she fails to intercept him in time. They are riding off into a trap.

They set out through the sepia-toned world of Panama in search of vast treasures to be plundered from their enemies. Instead, they get brutally ambushed and pushed back into the mosquito-infested swampland by the waiting conquistadors.

Whereas Captain Blood found Flynn starting at the bottom in The Sea Hawk he is brought down into the pits of despair once taken prisoner. He and all his men are imprisoned aboard a Spanish ship, oarsmen chained to their places and beaten mercilessly. They grind it out and take the torture while biding their time behind the oars.

It takes time but eventually, a chance is created culminating in a brazen escape attempt. The midnight mutiny is aided exquisitely moment by moment by Korngold’s score put on full display and nearly urging the men on in their quest while instigating an underlying tension.

The final burst of drama comes when Thorpe returns to shore, reunited with his love in her carriage making amends and sneaking back to the queen’s castle cloaked by night. Making it to the queen proves a nearly insurmountable task with all the guards on high alert and Wolfingham waiting to intercept him for one final duel. But Flynn could never be outdone and Henry Daniell is certainly no Basil Rathbone. The Queen gets the news and vows to battle the Spanish Armada. We know the rest of the story.

While not quite eclipsing the jaunty heights of Captain Blood, this worthy successor nevertheless has its own share of thrills and fine action with Flynn maintaining high form. Perhaps it’s partially a testament to how captivatingly the film opens because it’s difficult for any picture to maintain that kind of vigor all the way through. But with a valiant effort led by its charming rapscallion and his crew, they wade through any slow passages to bring us back around to the grade-A entertainment of a quality swashbuckler.

The production thriftily saved on funds by repurposing the exquisite period costuming from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex from the prior year. They become a perfect extension of the storyline to match Flora Robson’s formidable turn as the Queen. Meanwhile, Claude Rains is transformed into a dark-haired Machiavellian villain which he pulls off with the required amount of duplicity. This time around, Flynn’s character is based on the legendary Sir Francis Drake and yet like Robin Hood before, the Australian falls into the part and makes it his own through magnetism, athleticism, and wit. It’s another sterling achievement.

Queen Elizabeth gives one final stirring message that again can be taken in its time as a veiled indictment of Hitler’s belligerent aspirations. America had yet to enter the war and yet in over a year’s time, they would be right by England’s side. It wasn’t quite the surprise defeat of the Spanish Armada but it would take long hard years of waves of sacrifice and hard toil against the enemy. Winston Churchill is said to have admired this picture immensely and it’s hardly difficult to see why. It sums up his guiding sentiments exactly. After all, he is the man who famously said:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

4/5 Stars

Note: I watched the original restored uncut version of the film that clocks in at 127 minutes.

 

Dodge City (1939): An Errol Flynn Western

Dodge_City_1939_Poster.jpgThe year is 1866. The Civil War is over and anyone with vision is moving west. One such outpost is Kansas where the railway is replacing the stagecoach. It’s a world of iron men and iron horses. Because a place like the notorious Dodge City is a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”

It’s not a decent place for children and womenfolk for the time being. But some affluent magnates with vision see the profits it affords. That’s their business. It will take others to smooth out the rawness and make it into a land worth cultivating and settling down in.

Though lawlessness runs rampant in the streets led by town bad boy Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot), a wagon train led by a caravan of seasoned cowhands looks to be yet another signifier of change. Because one of the men riding with the rest is self-assured Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) supported by his pals. You can bet even with an accent Mr. Flynn makes an able-bodied western hero but he’s not alone.

Alan Hale was forever Flynn’s right-hand man from Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk (even playing his father in Gentleman Jim). They also get the boisterous and yet generally good-natured Tex (Guinn Big Boy Williams) to round out their trio. Hatton has his eyes on a pretty passenger who is easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, her younger brother is a drunken hellraising nuisance. He instigates a stampede that turns deadly and from thenceforward Wade and Ms. Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) have a contentious relationship at best.

Seeing Dodge growing so much leaves everyone all agog. Never has a western outpost been crammed with such activity. It feels authentic in one sense. You understand how disease and waste could begin to run rampant in such a bustling atmosphere and crowded conditions. Hatton gets his first taste of Surret when one of his business associates named Orth is shot. But the story is not all drama.

In an ongoing scenario, the boisterous Algernon Hart (Hale) forgoes the tempting calls of the local Gay Lady Saloon for the Pure Prairie League, residing right next door, attended by all the town’s most proper womenfolk.

What follows just might be one of the finest brawl fight ever spilling over into the lady’s social, overwhelming the scene with all sorts of gory sights and gut-busting crashes, bams, and bangs. It feels wild, alive, and somehow thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe because we get to sit on the outside looking in at the merry madness accompanied by whoops and raucous accordion music.

What’s more, it forces a response. A drunken Hart is singled out by Surret and his thugs who get ready to string him up in the plaza right then and there. While Hatton quells the injustice without a standoff, there’s a sense that things will only continue to escalate. No sheriff will stick out their neck in such a country. No man seems strong enough.

Finally, a child (Bobs Watson) is lost it’s the final straw and Hatton vows to clean up the streets and bring civility, law and order to the territory. Rounding up the rowdy troublemakers and ending the citywide shootouts forcibly. He clamps down like no one has ever done and it begins to make things peaceable again.

It’s the old story of civilization moving in on the wheels of law and order, which slowly begin to push out the graft and corruption. Someone must have the guts to lead the crusade with ideals and guns, if necessary. But it takes a community behind him to make it stick.

In this case, he is backed by the paper and its audacious editor Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh) an ardent purveyor of free speech. Change happens incrementally. Scare tactics come and go. De Havilland joins the paper too in order to represent the interests of the local ladies and then becomes an integral member of Hatton’s crusade for good. He takes Surret’s right-hand man Yancy (Victor Jory) into his custody knowing full well that fierce retribution is coming.

Because it’s common knowledge that when two immovable objects come barreling toward each other, there’s bound to be drama. In Dodge City it comes to pass in a flaming railcar finale, one moment dire and in another thrilling, with faceoffs, ambushes, gunfights, prisoners, hostages, and some stellar sharpshooting. But a man like Wade is not meant to remain stagnant. Husband and wife ride off toward their next adventure on the range.

It truly is double trouble with Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. But Sheridan’s role had the potential to be far more compelling than it is, unfortunately. Aside from a few musical numbers and screaming for a brawl to stop, she doesn’t get much screentime before disappearing for good.

De Havilland is the obvious ingenue love interest and though she abhorred the unimaginative parts she was being handed, she nevertheless has ample talents to imprint herself on the picture. She and Flynn go through the expected beats of mutual distaste toward ultimate affection, and we delight in their chemistry even if it’s easily plotted from start to finish.

However, to survey Dodge City is to look at various pieces that feel almost incongruous. Here is Erroll Flynn playing a cowboy. The palette is Technicolor but the action is focused on towns and interiors opposed to magnificent plains. It’s not Ford. It’s not Wayne or Fonda, and yet it manages to be a fine actioner to add to the western canon due to compelling characterizations, deep-seated conflict, and of course, enough gunplay and romance to make it a true horse opera.

4/5 Stars

Captain Blood (1935) Starring Flynn and De Havilland

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To a certain stratum of society — namely classic movie fans — it’s nearly impossible to imagine Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland not being paired together or not being box office draws, for that matter. However, on both accounts, in 1935, the studio was taking quite the risk, still undoubtedly reeling from the heart of the Depression Years and shelling a hefty sum of money for a vehicle essentially starring two unknowns.

Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle, and it remains for all posterity. Scoring, again and again, is quite another matter entirely. The pair would be placed together in an astounding 11 films in total!

This initial entry opens in England in 1685 and a band of patriotic rebels has taken it upon themselves to depose the current tyrant James II. Though he chooses to forego involving himself in the fighting, physician Peter Blood nevertheless goes with them in spirit and is ready and willing to operate on a fugitive who is mortally wounded. However, in the process of attending to the man, the king’s guards burst in upon him and all involved are arrested.

Their future is decided in a trial of pomp, circumstance, and unyielding justice. There are few figures in the legions of contenders as charismatic as Errol Flynn, beginning with his attempt to exonerate himself and extol his own noble profession. Even that fails to keep him from the executioner though the king fancies himself a humanitarian and decides to send the lot of traitors on slave ships to the West Indies instead.

There is a blatant irony in the depictions of white slavery while the deep wounds of black slavery were still being felt in our country through the oppression of Jim Crow Laws and racial injustice. This continues on the island plantation prison where the lads find themselves.

There they are sold on the auction blocks like chattel though much to his shame, Blood finds himself indebted to a pretty matron Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) who bought him for 10 pounds. Their relationship begins on the rockiest of soil and life thereafter is hard. Though eventually, Dr. Blood gains favor when he cures the hissy hypochondriac governor of his gout, earning himself greater freedom.

And with that the good doctor bides his time, planning an escape to coincide with a timely interruption on the outpost by Spanish Pirates. In the drunken escapades that follow, Blood gathers his men together, switching places with the invaders and a new band of pirates is born. They are a hardy lot including Blood’s faithful pilot and friend Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander), the sturdy gunner Hagthorpe (Guy Kibbee), and one Bible-spouting mate who has a bit of scripture for every occasion (And then the whale came and the whale swallowed Jonah. I hope!).

Their acclaim grows to such an extent that they fall into the company of a band of French Buccaneers led by a salty lady’s man named Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). He and Blood draw up a loose pact which quickly falls apart as they quarrel and end up dueling for the company of their esteemed “guest” Ms. Bishop. Laguna Beach, California ends up filling in for the Caribbean as they have it out in stirring fashion. Flynn and Rathbone were the best of foes when it came to crossing swords, even when they were purportedly allies.

In the final act, the outlaws are redeemed (like Robin Hood anyone?) taking up the banner of the new king William of Orange to fight a valorous battle for the glory of Merry Ol’ England. Thus, in spite of the tumultuous path he traversed, Captain Blood and his boys reach the pinnacle. He’s a hero and, of course, he gets the girl. There’s nothing her indignant uncle can do about it now as he’s been replaced by a far more benevolent governor.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ruefully admit how much I yearn for the epic swashbucklers of old. Captain Blood was the beginning of great successes to come and the type of Hollywood entertainment that is sorely missed today.

Although I hardly can remember their lips even touching, nevertheless, Flynn and de Havilland are fire together, all but cementing a screen partnership that would continue for many more. Even in the final scene together what becomes apparent is this genuinely contagious brand of fun. If anything they make it seem like a blast for the audience.

There’s a splendidly pulsating finale at sea where it’s convenient enough to cast inconsistencies overboard and instead be overwhelmed by the sheer mayhem of 2500 extras called on to do battle and make a show of it. They take to it handily clashing their cudgels, swinging from the yardarms, and falling into the drink, casualties of pistol fire.

Captain Blood is blessed with laughter as much as action and romance. The tenets of quality adventure filmmaking mean the picture enthralls us as much today as in its day because it knows what it means to have a good time. The seriousness can be shed for the sake of light-hearted, invigorating, no holds barred entertainment.

Because in the assured hands of Michael Curtiz, with a dashing new screen idol in Errol Flynn, Captain Blood never loses sight of what makes movies communal and thoroughly gratifying. Movies of old had a habit of being all things to all people, and it’s true this one has it all, I’m delighted to say.

The final testament is a smile imprinted on the face of the viewer as big as Flynn’s jaunty grin. Oh, what we wouldn’t give to be on the deck of that ship brandishing our cutlass and romancing a pretty young maiden just like he does. Maybe that’s my boyhood imagination speaking, but he really is the ideal action hero.

4.5/5 Stars

The Naked Dawn (1955): An Edgar G. Ulmer Western

220px-The_Naked_Dawn_film_poster.jpgThe western is founded on certain unifying archetypes, from drifters to revenge stories, showdowns and the westward progress of civilization butting up against the lawless wilderness. It always proved a fitting genre for morality plays and deeply thematic ideas. The tradition of the bank robbery goes back to Edwin S. Porter and The Great Train Robbery, and it plays an important role in The Naked Dawn.

The action opens with Mexican banditos robbing a train and looking to flee the scene. Though they manage to get away, it’s not without consequences. One hombre named Santiago watches as his campanero Vincente dies in his arms. He comforts him with visions of heavenly cattle grounds even though the man’s life was full of indiscretions, to put it nicely.

The story does occupy itself with religious rhetoric, which feels very much a part of the cultural landscape, as do the Spanish language and such ubiquitous elements as taco stands, cantinas, and a mariachi soundtrack. The film rightly steeps itself in this perceived world below the border. Whether it is authentic or not feels slightly immaterial, because something fairly immersive is erected. In one sense, this is the most impressive success of The Naked Dawn.

There is “brownface” needing acknowledgment and a certain stereotypical gaze, but director Edgar G. Ulmer develops a surprising amount of atmosphere for such a meager western. Secondly, Arthur Kennedy somehow manages to give a thoroughly flamboyant performance showing his competency in anchoring a leading role — even in an admittedly small scale oater like this.

Because in typical drifter fashion, he goes from leaving his dead buddy behind to finding a day’s shelter at a farmhouse along the trail. There he is met by an energetic young farmer and his dutiful wife. The presence of such a figure as Santiago unearths all their flaws even as he overwhelms them with his vagabond existence, full of a certain high-living and nostalgia for the old days.

Although initially hesitant to get involved, the husband finds himself brought along for a raid on a crooked shipment manager who they overpower and string up while raiding the contents of his safe. In the midst of all the money, Manuel (Eugene Iglesias) suddenly becomes brave and also greed springs to life in his heart.

For thence onward, Manuel holds this stranger in high regard, in awe of this man who has seen so much and takes him for the time of his life in the local watering hole, partaking of all the worldly pleasures afforded from strong drink, saucy women, lively music, and a bar brawl to wind out the entertainment.

But if this is the grand exciting world away from the ranch, then back with his doting wife (Betta St. John), we find a certain amount of unrest. She does not love her husband but his prospects were so much better than what she had before. Still, this new man makes her heart glad; she is ready to elope with him without fear of consequences.

The utter irony is the very fact that while Santiago is the outlaw, at least he is obvious and upfront about his waywardness. In his new company, Manuel fancies himself an honest man and his wife comes across as an angel. However, whether it’s unwitting or not, they both have more conflicted characters than they let on. Santiago is the one who allows them to salvage their lives.

It should be noted Francois Truffaut purportedly gleaned inspiration from this film’s love triangle for Jules et Jim. At first, any sort of comparison seems superficial at best. However, I finally settled on the fact both films contrive this three-way relationship that plays peculiarly for the very fact it lacks a great deal of interpersonal drama.

There is a passivity to how it unwinds and this feels counterintuitive to how these stories are supposed to function. Although we have tragedy on both accounts, the fact it is so detached leaves a different taste, rather than a blistering, jealousy-fueled gunshot finale. For that, we have to look at alternatives like Laura (1944) or Truffaut’s own Soft Skin (1964).

There is not a lot of time and space but the resources are used in all number of facets to at least touch on issues of religion, law and order, romance, greed, and unquestionably, so much more. Fittingly, as the picture zips to its rapid conclusion, we have come full circle with our larger-than-life Bandido dreaming of the pearly gates much like his campanero before him.

Ulmer blesses the audience with another extraordinarily lucid 10-day effort. Let that sink in for a second. The Naked Dawn is yet another marvel in economic ingenuity. Better yet, any drop off in quality or production values only seems to add to the film’s inherent flavor.

3.5/5 Stars

The Desperate Hours (1955) Bogart Vs. March

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As the credits roll, the camera zooms its way down a residential street but doesn’t feel natural. It’s like a peering gaze casing the scene as music hammers away in the background. What makes the imagery more disconcerting is that this tranquil picture-perfect suburbia could be plucked right out of Leave it to Beaver. In fact, coincidentally, the house is the very same!

In this film, it belongs to your typical everyday family circa 1955. The man of the house, Fredric March, sits around the breakfast table, preparing for his job at local bank, bemoaning the fact his kids are growing up.

Little Junior is already showing signs. Not wanting to kiss his pops goodbye. His daughter is lovestruck and intent on marrying her beau, which he can’t stand to think about. His wife is perfect. Pretty, maternal, and a fabulous homemaker. Its all a bit insipid on the whole but that’s very purposeful. Currently, we might call his daily struggles “first world problems.”

It is a bit of the lifestyle that can be easily plucked out of any of the old family sitcoms from Fathers Knows Best to The Donna Reed Show. And yet what those portraits of the nuclear family never did have was the threat of three convicts at-large…

Their hardened leader is Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) joined by the boisterous slob Kobish (Robert Middleton), and Griffin’s kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin).  Come to think of it, there was an episode of The Andy Griffith Show with striking parallels, albeit with more comical resolutions. As is, William Wyler’s piece falls more in line with The Detective Story (1951) from a few years prior pushing the stage elements out a bit but still centering its action on the family domicile.

Arthur Kennedy at the Police Precinct is brought on the case but he really feels like a wasted opportunity and a dead-end at best. The real meat of the story is within that house between the two men vying for control.

Bogart, who got his break in Petrified Forest (1936) as a crazed heavy, is essentially book-ending his career with tough guy roles. Even if he’s over the hill for such roles, he still makes a good snarling approximation of his former self. One could argue that time has only made him more disgruntled and worn. His convict is a much more sorry figure with 20 years sagging under his dour eyes.

He plans to lay low in the residential neighborhood until the money they’re expecting gets sent their way. So we expect the plot to be a waiting game. Except the subsequent tension comes with criminals existing in such close proximity to this family, a theme running through other contemporary dramas like He Ran All The Way (1951) and Suddenly (1954).

To be ousted by the authorities means that everyone gets it. And yet the Hilliards are commanded to stick to their daily rhythms as closely as possible, even as the fugitives take over the home and turn it into a shambles. The conflict that goes through Mr. Hilliard’s head is between doing as the convicts say to protect his family and trying to get in contact with the police. He’s faced with the most nervewracking proposition of his life as the hours tick excruciatingly by.

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When March finally gets to his office, frazzled by the turn of events, it feels like a Wyler touch of perfectionism to have three portraits prominently sitting in his office. The way they’re arranged perfectly toward the camera feels blatantly artificial. No one would have them set up that way and yet they’re implicitly reminding him (and us) that the lives of the people he holds most dear are still in constant jeopardy. The worst part: he’s all but powerless to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, the police are shacked up in Al’s Dining Room kitchen as their command center itches for a decent lead. Cindy tries to head off her beau (a far too old Gig Young) so he doesn’t find out about the fugitives and get the family in more trouble. A garbage man gets it for seeing too much. Mr. Hilliard sweats it out waiting for a letter loaded with cash destined for his office.

One can easily surmise Wyler had great relish filming along the staircase because it all but visually summarizes the tension of the film. Stairs are all about space and the relationship of people to one another. It’s shorthand to explain an unbalance or shift in power. For Mr. Hilliard, this is about his family. That’s all that matters. For the policeman who’s just thinking about his reelection, it’s an entirely different scenario.

And what the picture does tease out is the idea that extreme duress often causes people to show their true colors, whether empowered by integrity or saddled by cowardice. In the end, a businessman living a so-called cushy life shows a fiercely defiant fortitude that ultimately holds his family together. It has less to do with the police or even the criminals that stakeout in his home.

In the end, it’s his own grit, determination, and will to protect his family that wins out. If the film is an exercise in suburban melodrama, it’s also a resounding testament to the human spirit as well. The scary part is that like The Hitchhiker before it, the story was partially based on real life events. Why is that frightening, you ask? It means real people were faced with these dire consequences. We saw what they did? Implicitly we must also beg the question, what would we do when the desperate hours hit us?

3.5/5 Stars

Rancho Notorious (1952): Chug-a-Lug

Rancho-Notorious-poster.jpgThe legend goes that the ever-meddling megalomaniac of RKO Pictures, Howard Hughes, insisted the film’s title be changed to Rancho Notorious because European audiences wouldn’t know what a “Chug-a-Lug” was. Director Fritz Lang, who was himself a European emigre, snidely replied they definitely knew what a “Rancho Notorious” was.

Regardless, Rancho Notorious doesn’t miss a beat with an opening close-up of a couple’s tender embrace. The lovers are pried apart reluctantly as Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) goes back to work as a ranch hand, leaving his best girl, Beth (Gloria Henry), to mind her mercantile store.

As he leaves, two strangers ride into town scowling around and leering at the pretty gal waving her love off on his way. One of the two thugs enters the shop to inquire about the contents of the safe, glowering over her lecherously as she reveals its contents. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate what’s next. You can fill in the blanks.

This sequence alone is a testament to the fact that the menace of Fritz Lang can even encroach on the colored palette of the western through music and foreboding shadow. With a woman now ruthlessly ravaged and murdered, it sets her man off on the trail seeking vengeance. But being the snake in the grass that he is, one of the marauders shoots his accomplice in the back before absconding with their cache.

Haskell makes it to their encampment just soon enough to induce the dying man to let out his final breath. The only tidbit he has to go on is the phrase, “Chug-a-Lug” so he goes on the trail again sticking his nose anywhere and everywhere people might have a lead.

More often than not it leads to a near-mythical lady named Alter Kean (Marlene Dietrich), tall tales of her exploits being spread all across the territory. Everyone from neighborly townfolk to old acquaintances gladly spin myths and regale the interested passerby with their recollections. Because while he’s interested, so is the moviegoing audience.

There were her days as a saloon floozie, racing with all the other gals on the backs of eligible young men and she had the pick of them all. In those days she worked for Baldy Gunner (William Frawley) though her employment was terminated prematurely. She was too rough on the customers and they were too fresh so she got the boot.

But not before running off with most of Baldy’s money thanks to the even-keeled strong-armed tactics of Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) who holds that often touted distinction of being “The Fastest Gun in the West.” He, like Alter, could easily be cast as a mythical figure. Everyone wants to see him and take him down. He just wants to be left alone instead of having to shoot his way out of every town he wanders into. Their reputations precede both of them and in that regard, they are kindred spirits. They seemingly understand each other. Romance might be in the air as well.

Why does this matter in Vern’s quest? For that, we must look to the Election Day taking place in a wild and wooly western town where Frenchy is currently being held along with a trio of crooked politicians. The three men are all set to be hung the very same day if their political party gets overturned. The trills of democracy haven’t really reached this far west yet. Anyway, Vern gets brought in on some minor charge to get close to this outlaw and gain his confidence.

Finally, his assiduousness pays off, and he follows Frenchy to an oasis for wanted thieves, lascivious vagabonds, and societal outcasts. He makes it to Chug-a-Lug, an isolated horse ranch now run by none other than Alter Kean, in all her glory.

He now has a group of men to begin whittling down because, if his suspicions are correct, then his culprit is undoubtedly among them. For now, it’s just Marlene and the boys of the range and she whips them pretty darn good, around the card table and otherwise.

Theatrically, Rancho Notorious has the relatively unique distinction of being an interior western. Certainly, there are exterior shots but due to budgeting at RKO and what he was given to work with, Lang is forced to go the cheaper route. However, he leverages that handicap which does often give way to a fake and garish looking mise en scène to nevertheless create an unnerving world of tension and claustrophobia.

The space is crowded with thugs just ready to go off like sticks of dynamite. They just need a match to light them off and Arthur Kennedy is precisely that. Of course, Dietrich is quite the firecracker in her own right and always the focal point.

The main themes highlighted in the title song of “Hate, Murder, and Revenge” would be returned to time and time again throughout the western canon but they also tie nicely into Lang’s own filmography.

One moment that Lang’s camera brings these themes to light most blatantly occurs when Kennedy spies the broach he gave his dead girlfriend on another woman. His gaze jumps down the gallery of leering thugs (maybe they’re only grinning) all around him with each successive cut. It’s jarring and also makes it supremely evident what Vern thinks of each and every one of them. The rage burns red hot. But he keeps it under wraps for now.

For now, the only progression that seems evident is Vern slowly moving in on Frenchy’s turf. Relations all down the line get continually testy. What follows is a contentious bank job that suggests there is no honor among thieves. Meanwhile, Alter is selling her ranch and ready to pick up and leave the territory. The end is nigh. We must have the Gunfight at Rancho Notorious or better yet The Gunfight at Chug-a-Lug to wrap up all the loose ends.

While not quite on par with Johnny Guitar, Dietrich, like Joan Crawford, more than holds her own, still strikingly alluring and fiercely independent. She also earns herself an ending that evokes and, in some ways, surpasses Destry Rides Again (1939).

In full disclosure, I rather like the title Rancho Notorious because not only is it slightly provocative but it gives some indication of the people who reside right at its heart. People driven by vice, rage, greed, jealousy, and passion. Because regardless of the location or the genre or the characters, Lang’s pictures were always about these intense emotions and innate urges at the core of human beings.

One of them is a purportedly good man who turns callous. Thus, we must question if the very same proclivities don’t rise up within ourselves. Could it be we’re all capable of a little notoriety? We all require a place to hide out one time or another and we all desire a second shot at redemption. Of course, the Chug-a-Lug wheel of fate is not always so forgiving.

4/5 Stars

City for Conquest (1940): James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Arthur Kennedy

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Upon being immersed in City for Conquest, it feels like a cast of millions because so many familiar faces make an appearance for any given amount of time. Surely, the most important coupling is James Cagney and Ann Sheridan who are paired much in the same way as Angel With Dirty Faces (1938), playing childhood sweethearts who end up growing up together.

The picture also provides a scintillating film debut for young Arthur Kennedy, forerunning his turn playing the younger brother to another boxer in Champion (1949), opposite Kirk Douglas. Cagney’s not a bad man to have for a brother either and their dynamic is one of the most compelling aspects of this relatively slight drama.

It all begins with a rather peculiar framing device with an all-knowing drifter (Frank Craven) posing his commentary on “The Big Apple” and the world of interpersonal relationships that exist all around him. Because each individual has different talents and aspirations, at its most instinctual level, City for Conquest is about the trajectory of each character in tandem to one another. Thus, the story is most concretely driven by its characters while being enriched by that prototypical Warner Bros. grit and street corner brand of atmosphere.

For one, Danny Kenny (Cagney) tries his luck in the boxing ring taking on the name “Young Sampson,” not necessarily because of ambition but for the pure fact, it puts grub on the table and provides means to pay for his little brother’s musical education. Backed by promoter Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp) and supported by buddies Mutt (Frank McHugh) and Pinky (George Tobias), he tenaciously makes his way up the ranks toward the welterweight title.

Although he has nothing to show for it yet, Eddie Kenny (Kennedy) has a knack for compositions and he’s moved his brother with his city symphony, despite his lack of musical knowledge, because music has the power to speak to even everyday folks on a visceral level.

Meanwhile, Peg Nash (Sheridan) is terribly smitten with Danny and yet in the same breath aspires to be a first-class dancer. She meets an arrogant yet talented bloke (Anthony Quinn) out on the dance floor and is enticed with a career just like she’s always dreamed about.

The girl breaks his heart as much as you can break Jimmy Cagney. He takes it like a man while still feeling betrayed. To add insult to injury, his climactic bout is rigged due to the resin dust illegally sprinkled on his opponent’s gloves. Not only does Danny unfairly lose the fight but his career is permanently terminated with his eyesight impeded for good. Eddie shouts for the senseless beating to end as Peg cries to herself over the radio broadcast besides herself over Danny’s loss. It affects Danny physically while the others are casualties of a different kind.

It’s all but inevitable that the picture will end in some gangster knockoff job with the boy’s big shot pal Googie (Elia Kazan) seemingly ready to give the crooked wrenches who tampered with the fight their comeuppance. And the side of the underworld set on the east river with bodies to dispose of certainly has its place. But the underlining factor is despite their struggles, our three protagonists are allowed to find a swatch of contentment.

Eddie is finally able to realize his musical ambitions and gain the repute of the masses in his first show while Danny and Peg are reunited to live life as they were always meant to — together. Though her dancing aspirations have been curtailed and his sight lost, their future remains shimmering with hopefulness.

One could easily comment that City For Conquest‘s themes riff off of Golden Boy in the way music and the boxing ring are juxtaposed, one next to the other. In this case, it’s the two brothers who represent the two seemingly incongruent worlds. And yet the biggest implication is that a rough and tumble guy like Cagney can still have a beating heart and a sensitivity for song even as he goes day in and day out pounding people in the ring. The two worlds are not mutually exclusive by any means.

We certainly know who our main players are but again it’s the robust and jovial nature of the full ensemble making it even more diverting. Ward Bond shows up as a disgruntled cop there, Charles Lane as a no-nonsense promoter here, and Jerome Cowan is ready to rib his competition over a few boxing ring bets. They don’t have to be the focal point because that’s not requisite for being entertaining. I greatly admire the character actors of old for what they are able to create even within meager means.

3/5 Stars

Wuthering Heights (1939): Death Be My Destiny

Wuthering_Heights_(1939_film).jpgIt’s almost instantly reasonable to clump this cinematic adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with other contemporary pictures swirling with gothic menace like Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre. The latter film, of course, is based off the novel of another of the Bronte Sisters, Charlotte.

We might be able to give it some credit as the first of the lot while it also somehow managed to be one of the most high profile pictures in a year that has been lauded for the spectacular nature of its output. Its true 1939 was a staggering year for Hollywood. The list is too extensive even to begin attempting.

William Wyler was continuing his string of successes throughout the 1930s before WWII, and Wuthering Heights, in particular, would see the formation of a fruitful partnership with Gregg Toland, the cinematographer renowned for his perfecting of deep-focus photography. It was used in this picture and most prominently in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and then again in The Best Years of Our Lives, also with Wyler.

The story itself streamlined and truncated from the original work begins with the dark mood of the eponymous estate roosted over by a brooding man named Heathcliff and his gaunt wife, frail old housekeeper, and his hounds. But we are provided a flashback to happier times evoking childhood and the glories of the Yorkshire Moors covered by vast expanses of heather (actually imported from England to California).

How it diverges from the tales of Dickens or even Charlotte Bronte’s work is by offering a portrait of elders who are not nearly puritanical but actually show a pretense of actual Christian charity. What is there is a warmth girded around them and a hospitality and prodigal nature toward the less fortunate.

Mr. Earnshaw is a model of such a man as he brings a besmirched orphaned youth from his travels on London back to his estate and he adopts him as his own son. As long as the man lives young Heathcliff finds great joy in life treated as a full member of the family. Out of his childhood blooms his lifelong affection for his adopted sister Catherine. Their friendship grows out of horseback riding and wishful dreaming of castles and knights on the rolling plains of their homeland. They could not be more contented.

Ironically, behind the scenes, we have two talents in Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier who could not have been more antagonistic. Though young, Oberon was a fairly established actress in Hollywood, admired for her exquisite beauty. Laurence Olivier was just coming into his own as a film actor. His presence and dashing looks are irrefutable, though he had only recently dabbled in the medium following his already illustrious career on the stage.

Their projections are all but believable and ultimately rapturous even if the illusion is somewhat broken by the realization that the two actors abhorred each other off-camera. Part of the resentment might stem from the fact Olivier’s lover and soon-to-be wife Vivien Leigh had been passed over the leading role. But we must fall back to the story.

Mr. Earnshaw’s own son Hindley (Hugh Williams) vindictively maintains a grudge against Heathcliff that began the first day he ever set eyes on the other lad. He was never going to be anything but a stable boy.

Inevitably comes the day when Mr. Earnshaw passes on and the warmth once bathing his dominion is so quickly scrubbed away by the younger Earnshaw. He pushes Heathcliff out of the house to take care of the horses and treats him as he always has, as a mere pair of dirty stable hands, Meanwhile, the conceited rival becomes crippled by alcoholism and gambling debts.

Though they have confessed their undying love, the fact that Heathcliff can never achieve any amount of success to fund their childhood fancies, Catherine grows up impatient and bitter. Impatient to find a man who can make her happy by means of the world. Heathcliff now scorned seemingly leaves for good and she finds such an affluent suitor in Edgar Linton, David Niven with another thankless part, doting over her good-naturedly.

What ultimately arises in the final act is a vindictive battle of raging jealousies and contorted love affairs. Heathcliff begins to court the sympathetic younger sister Isabelle Linton (Geraldine Fitzgerald) which immediately receives the ire of not only her older brother but Cathy as well. She and her future sister-in-law have at it and yet soon Cathy is taken by illness because though she’s too proud to admit it, truthfully she still desires Heathcliff.

The most piercing love stories are those that are unrequited or worst yet lost out on based on the passage of time and changing circumstances. Where regrets and misfortunes pool up in such a way crippling what could have been so joyous. It speaks to a human desire for abiding, even eternal, romantic contentment. Heathcliff rashly prays to be haunted by her — for the ghost of her to torment him — because he cannot live without his soul. That is, Cathy.

What’s more, he is all but granted the wish that never seemed attainable in life, provided by a near transfiguration of the ethereal and the eternal. It’s a deeply powerful and moving apotheosis but upon closer observation, it also bears the responsibility in creating myths around romantic love. Because even in this modern age inundated by themes and testimonies of passion we cling to the idea that love is an eternal force when evoked and instigated between two people.

However, it’s only a half-truth because even as we look at the narrative of Wuthering Heights the messiness and the heartbreak that’s found all the way throughout the story, such final departures do not fit the origins of the story. They cannot line up in the real world either and it is true this is a picture that relies on the outskirts of the imagination and the hinterlands existing on the edges of the moors and the frames of the film itself. This is where love is able to survive in this almost unknowable, illusory world where it is not bounded by the ephemeral things we know to be true.

Reminiscent of some of Frank Borzage’s most enthralling romances, love is spiritual — a religion all to itself — ably transcending the throes of death. That’s the sentiment anyway, observed most curiously by the maid Ellen (Flora Robson) as, “Trying to tear away the veil between death and life.”

Because with Wuthering Heights, were it to maintain a real-world authenticity to the end of its days, we would rue the day we ever saw it and be bitter and downtrodden for the tragedy we had just witnessed. Life and film cannot always be interchangeable. As long as we understand this,  there’s a good chance we can avoid being damaged by such fallacies on the other side of the written page and the celluloid screen.

4/5 Stars

Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

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This is my entry in The Vive la France Blogathon. Thanks to Lady Eve and Silver Screen Modes for having me!

I recently read some excerpts out of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Attack on Christendom” and the Danish philosopher makes the case “Even when you don’t live by a Christian reality you live in a Christianized world. You know when you offend the collective consciousness.”

Although this context is changing in the present day, it very much fits the world of this film from Jean-Pierre Melville. There is this sense of propriety and a propensity toward specific ways and lifestyles as dictated by the prevailing cultural forces. In this case, the church. Though some choose to kick against the goads and challenge the status quo. That’s where our story commences.

The substantial backdrop of World War II also ties Leon Morin to Silence de la Mer (1949) and then Army of Shadows (1969), which came well after. Because, of course, before his days as the idol of the New Wave and a craftsman of pulp gangster classics, Melville actually worked as a member of a French Resistance himself. You cannot take part in something like that without it totally impacting how you perceive the world.

But there is still an important distinction to be made. This is hardly a war movie. Instead, the war serves as a background for the human experience — a human relationship between a man and a woman. Their relationship starts early in the occupation and stretches beyond the boundaries of V-E Day.

However, the terms seem very suggestive and in an unrefined exploration of the material this would be the case. Still, by some marvel, Melville manages to conduct an astute yet still spellbinding examination of spirituality. The woman: a militant communist. The man: a humble priest of a French parish.

It is two years after Hiroshima Mon Amour. Alain Resnais’s film is one of the most poetic meditations you will ever see on the likes of love, war, and memory. Leon Morin, Priest is certainly different. It is a different kind of cadence and rhythm developing its own sense of a world and the related themes to go with it. But it is supernally evocative in its own right.

Emmanuelle Riva is Emmanuelle Riva, immaculately beautiful with eyes so bright they speak a language unto themselves. The moroseness is evident and yet they flit even momentarily between the cheery and the slightly provocative.

If Riva had her ascension on Hiroshima Mon Amour, Jean-Paul Belmondo was her equal as a nascent shooting star coming off of Godard’s Breathless. In this context, what a curious crossroads to descend upon Leon Morin, Priest. Such a quiet, tranquil picture seemingly more inclined toward the past than any manner of forward thinking. Neither is there a flashy, jazzy lifeblood to it.

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However, in another sense, it could not be more fitting. Melville, as alluded to before, was the Godfather of many of the Nouvelle Vague talents — certainly Godard — and even if it’s only in particular instances, he still has a flair unto his own.

We might note a stripped-down peer like Robert Bresson as reference, but there are abrupt dashes of pizzazz here that feel like the youth of the New Wave, whether in an implied slap to the face or a jarring jump in continuity. The persistent use of fade-outs allows the passage of time to be conceived at a leisurely pace.

The city is such an extraordinary space brimming with character imbued by the sheer amount of years being lived in its midst. At first, the shroud of war is almost a comical distraction. In its early days, solemnity has not set in. Then, the feathered garb of the Italians gives way to the no-nonsense domed blitzkrieg of the Germans.

Families have their children baptized to conveniently hide their Jewish lineage from any prying eyes within the incumbent authorities. Because soon enough, they start deporting undesirables en force. Paranoia and anti-semitism set in, even within our heroine Barny’s own workplace. Fugitives seeking asylum call on her charity in need of ration stamps and a place to gather themselves on their road to freedom.

Then, one afternoon she resolves to give a local priest a piece of her mind during confessions. She settles on the name Leon Morin as he seems like he might be the most receptive party given the peasantry pedigree of his moniker. If we were to label this decision we might label it as nothing short of Providence.

On first impression, Jean-Paul Belmondo feels like an unconventional casting for a member of the cloth. I often allude to his coming out of the tradition of Bogart but could Bogey have played a priest? Hardly. Still, Belmondo pulls it off with a candor, still blunt and true in its implementation. Because he cares deeply for others nevertheless, aided by his plain features and pragmatic perspective which both suit him well.

His dour space with only a desk, a window, and a shelf of books prove a very inviting place. Because he is such a person. At first an unassuming but ultimately charismatic spiritual leader. His lending library is open to Bardy and she begins to visit him and read his books. Somehow battling her urges to doubt due to curiosity and her own desire to gravitate toward him.

She is adamant about scientific proof for God and we begin an interim period that feels like it might be a precursor to Rohmer’s dialogues from My Night at Maud’s. In subsequent days, all the girls start coming to call on the young priest. Whether it’s merely physical attraction or some other ethereal quality about him is never stated outright. This cynical viewer is reminded of the glib aphorism, “flirt to convert.” And yet with each visitor, he comes ready to share the hope that is within him.

Bardy’s assured coworker Marion is one caller and then another very attractive girl who plans to seduce him; it seems she’s in the business of it with a laundry list of conquests going before her. And yet the perplexing aspect of the priest is how impregnable he is even as he welcomes each woman in, cultivates their spiritual well-being, and deals with them in such a frank manner.

Likewise, from the pulpit, he does not spare his words for the congregation sitting before him any given holy day. Recalling much of what Kierkegaard criticized he warns them not be merely “Sunday Christians.” “Not living out a Christian life drives away the undecided” and this is nothing new.

Hypocrisy or closer still being little different from everyone else is often one of the greatest faults of people who are deemed “Christian.” He further extolls them, “They should each be an apostle in their own setting.” It is a fallacy that only a priest can do the work of God. So while he speaks with consternation, he wraps it up with a note of hope. Because according to him,  there’s is “A God whose grace is given to the heretics and believers alike, loved equally in his sight.”

We see even momentarily his guiding force. Why he pursued Barny and did his best to shepherd her. He’s no elitist. His time and services are extended to all people. He lives it out in the day-to-day of life together with others.

When Barny and Morin must finally say goodbye there is so much in the air, gratefulness, sadness, wistfulness — even as she has fallen in love for his righteous guidance and he remains resolved in his mission to tend after the souls of those in his stead.

To merely say this is a conversion story is too simplistic. To claim it’s suggesting the sensuality of forbidden love is off the mark. We already confirmed it is not a war picture. The brilliance of Melville is painting around these conventional lines with the utmost nuance. Of course, the performances are superb. The two cinematic saints in Riva and Belmondo make it possible. The fact we are fallen humans, ripe with warring desires and doubts, make it necessary. Dealing with spirituality in such a perceptive manner is nothing short of a modern miracle.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Bogart actually did portray a priest in The Left Hand of God toward the end of his career. Thanks for those who pointed it out to me. Much appreciated!

Jezebel (1938): A Bette Davis Southern Belle

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The oldest movie theater near where I grew up was built in 1938 and by some peculiar coincidence, Bette Davis is said to have driven by the establishment time and time again. Being the iron-willed personality that she was, the rising star demanded they open with her latest movie. (I assume very few people crossed Bette Davis and lived to tell about it.)

Thus, the first film ever shown at the newly minted theater was her very own Jezebel. One of the attractions of the theater to this day is an old-fashioned parlor in the ladies room reminiscent of the days when women used to sit together while powdering their noses and sharing in the latest trivialities and juicy bits of gossip. At least that’s how I imagine it.

In truth, Jezebel would prove to be the actresses consolation prize for being passed over for the leading role in one of the biggest cultural attractions of the era, Gone with the Wind (1939). Though Davis was beloved and already extremely popular with the viewing public, the big wigs got the final say choosing Vivien Leigh instead. Of course, the rest is history.

But it’s difficult not to look at Jezebel in juxtaposition with its arguably more opulent and ostentatious rival. That begins with the differing palettes — black & white vs. color — and subsequently bleeds into the running times and comparative success as well.

Surely, Henry Fonda is no dashing rapscallion like Clark Gable, but I find him a more understated hero. More pleasantly reserved. Likewise, while Selznick’s behemoth production was a cash cow, you wonder how he was able to tie the picture together with so many moving pieces and names attached as directors, cinematographers, etc.

William Wyler guides Jezebel with his usual expertise and professionalism, cementing a long and fruitful partnership with Bette Davis. Not that they always were the perfect symbiotic relationship; he soon earned the nickname “99 Take Willie” and Davis was already known for her aforementioned recalcitrant nature.

But there’s little denying that they made each other better. He elevated her performance with his care and the collaboration with long-time cinematographer Ernest Haller lighting her in each scene, creates an ongoing continuity, while Davis brought something authentic and inherently obstinate, fearlessly commanding the screen.

This particular story takes us back in American history to Antebellum New Orleans in 1852. Davis makes a stirring impression as southern belle Julie Marsden arriving late to a fine to-do, not even changing out of her riding crop before bursting in on the company. The churlishness of her impropriety is startling and utterly appalling to the ladies and some of the gentlemen trained up by decades of Southern civility.

Ladies just don’t do such a thing. It isn’t decent. But you get the sense that’s precisely why Davis is impeccable for this role as a woman who willingly tramples over the normative without a second thought. She’s simultaneously an audacious nonconformist and a destructive force clouded by her own pettiness.

She currently resides with her hospitable and generally courteous aunt (Fay Bainter) who nevertheless has her hands full with such a strong-headed woman in her home. The most crucial personal conflict begins with Jezebel’s beau Preston Dillard (Fonda), an up and coming banker. They have a disagreement as he seems more taken with his work than with her.

However, for Julie, in her egocentric world, she is all that matters, and in a form of brash retaliation, she disregards traditional protocol again by ordering a scandalous red dress to wear to the forthcoming ball. Why is it unheard of? Because unmarried women are only ever seen in white. Never in their life would they dream of donning such a brazen symbol.

Throughout the entire film, Davis’ wardrobe, designed by Orry Kelly, essentially becomes an extension of her character, embodying her individuality and defiance of the culture she finds around her.

Henry Fonda maintains a quietly stern resolve much to his credit. Because at face value I always take him for a benevolent soul, and he is when the moments of sincerity are called for. But one cannot acknowledge his candor without remembering the other scenes in You Only Live Once or The Grapes of Wrath where his utter alienation with the world is palpable.

Thus, he’s able to hold his own with Davis even if, by design, this is her picture. The steadiness of his own demeanor is able to be her counterbalance while also confronting the blind devotees of southern convention. Of course, it can’t be helped even as he and his mentor, Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp), try and speak sense into those around them.

Julie and Preston weather the Ball together as he forces her to make the ignominious walk of shame and subsequently dance with him, as all eyes fall on them stupefied. Their engagement falls to the wayside after that and Julie will not have him back.

Time passes as Pres goes up north for a spell and Julie becomes inconsolate, clinging to the hope that her former lover will come back to her on his hands and knees. She’s desperate and terribly broken up. Eventually, he does return, just like old times, and yet on his arm hangs his new wife, a charming northerner (Margaret Lindsay), who nevertheless gets slighted by her jealous rival.

In one last-ditch effort to make Prez jealous, Judy tries to use a cocksure southern gentleman named Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to stir up any dissidence she can between the two men. To a degree, her disingenuous contrivance works out in winning the man’s favor with consequences she cannot be absolved of.

Although the conflict between the North and the South is rising to a fever pitch, the film is never actually embroiled in the Civil War. Instead, it is stricken by the peril of the Yellow Fever which fails to discriminate between the rich and the poor.

We see most clearly in these waning moments the arbitrary nature of the southern moral code which would deem two men would have to die in a duel for absolutely pointless means. It’s infuriating to watch because no one’s honor was even at stake. It’s all on account of the needlessly puerile ploys of a woman completely consumed by selfishness, ultimately destroying the relationships around her.

Bette Davis’ pursuit of redemption at the end of the picture generally ruins what we are left with. Especially because she was well-known for playing strong often uncompromising women verging on the unsympathetic. That was part of her allure as an actor, making her so very unlike many of the Hollywood standard-bearers. She had those iconic eyes but also an implacable bullish nature. She’s always a cinematic force to be reckoned with even if her performance gets slightly compromised in Jezebel.

3.5/5 Stars