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Le Bonheur (1965)

The aesthetic of Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur is strikingly deliberate. Her title cards are filled with sunflowers. All her characters — members of a lovely little family — wear a rainbow of colors. There’s a verdant gaiety to the forest landscape around them. The score comprised of the buoyant elegance of Mozart does wonders to accentuate this very salient mood. In short, it’s gorgeous. Surely this is happiness personified.

In the middle of the 1960s, that turbulent time of upheaval and the nouvelle vague, it deigns to be domestic and cheerful in a way Godard would never dare and Truffaut could only manage through a boyish point of view.

But it has such a vibrant and daring color palette on par with anything in Contempt (Bardot included), Pierrot Le Fou or Weekend. In fact, this could very well be her answer to a glorious Jacques Demy musical (her husband) and a predecessor to Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board.

The couple’s children are adorable as they toddle around, ride in the back of the family truck or feed sugar cubes to their daddy’s horse — the bicycle he rides home from work every afternoon. Like any young kids, they like to imagine, they’re enthralled by a newborn baby, and they take naps (under the mosquito netting their mother puts out in the forest for them).

By this point, the movie could feel sickening and twee, but there’s an impulse to see the movie out and where it might go. It leaves some questions about a dramatic situation with its title (especially with how fiercely unironic it resolves to be from the outset).

When they return home to their idyllic town, it’s little different. True, the husband, Francois (Jean-Claude Drouot), wants to see a western at the cinema — a prototypical American film. His wife Therese (Claire Drouot) is enchanted by a French film, the first pairing of “[Bridgette] Bardot and [Jeanne] Moreau.” Otherwise, they seem perfectly aligned, going to work and raising their family together.

This all quite effectively lulls us into a false sense of security. Varda knows quite well what she’s doing. As an audience, we want to believe this is what life is like, but we are privy to a movie and so something must change…If there is a source of drama, it’s when the man starts to flirt with a local telephone operator Emilie (Marie-France Boyer). Even this tête-à-tête is light and affable. They feel innocent enough. Hardly prepared to wreck a home.

His wife and his lover aren’t mirror images exactly — they look different — but Varda does very little to distinguish their visible traits (ie. blonde vs. brunette or juxtaposed costuming choices).  They’re both pretty young blondes, affable, draped in bright colors. It feels like a curious coincidence until it builds into something more.

This trifling love affair morphs into exactly the kind of circumstances the exterior does its best to dispel. Surely infidelity does not have license to break into such reverie and tear a family apart. This does not fit with the perfect marital equation or the glorious mise en scene.

So we begin to discover a kind of perturbing even disheartening dissonance about the picture as it continues to break with reality. It builds and begins to ambush us with new contradictions.

Here is a man deliriously happy, both with his wife and then with another woman. He assures his new love, “I have enough joy for both of you. Happiness works by addition.” Then when he cordially breaks it to his wife he says, It’s as if he has 10 arms to love her and he has extra arms (to love someone else).

It doesn’t matter how emphatically or candidly he says those words. They come off poorly. Even as he continues to live in his rapturous dream world without consequence, for the first time the words ring out in the landscape with an inherent hollowness. It’s yet another signal of paradise lost. We have hit upon a point of no return.

Le Bonheur is devastating in a manner that I never would have imagined. Because Varda finally does allow the film’s glorious bliss to crack even if the tone and coloring never waver or fade. The way the young carpenter relives one horrifying moment over and over again in front of the camera feels reminiscent of C.S. Lewis when he wrote about grief and how “The same leg is cut off time after time.”

However, now we have a suspicion of where it might go. The final few minutes of Le Bonheur are not a total surprise; they do feel like a shocking betrayal of our initial assumptions. This is not a criticism; it simply shows how effectively the movie evolves over time while maintaining a certain surface-level palatability. It’s ceaselessly beautiful to look at even as the currents turn.

Whatever its reputation, Le Bonheur feels commensurate with some of the most unnerving psychological horror films and thrillers I’ve seen through the ages. I think of the uneasy denouement of Gone Girl or the unsettling conspiracies in Rosemary’s Baby or Get Out. The curious part is how the perpetrators have no idea what they have done. It’s not a film of premeditated plots, more “happy” accidents, and this in itself is terrifying.

Because we have the same set dressings, the same motifs — almost everything feels the same — but we have an entirely different context. If we’ve settled back into a comforting equilibrium, then something almost imperceptible grates at us. Something has soured with the happiness set before us. It establishes a level of disquietude I won’t forget for some time. Surely something is not right here. I leave it to each viewer to reconcile it for themselves.

4/5 Stars

La Pointe Courte (1955)

Agnes Varda became a modern-day cinema celebrity in the 21st century thanks to her immediately recognizable profile and modern incarnations of her work like Vague Visages. Because it’s true she never stopped creating, never ceased exploring this terrestrial sphere.

Watching something like La Pointe Courte (1955), one of her early efforts, one begins to imagine and reconfigure how the movie canon gets forged. Some of it has to do with accessibility (Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 seems to gain a resurgence in popularity by the year).

But whereas 400 Blows, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Breathless became the lodestars for an entire seismic shift in film, Varda is rarely considered in this dialogue. If at all, it’s in tandem with Alain Resnais or her husband Jacques Demy from the Left Bank who were contemporaries of The filmmakers from Cahiers du Cinema. But never is Varda mentioned as a predecessor or the initial pioneer of forthcoming movements and yet she shot a film with little money, passion, and a point of view.

Early on as we glide down the alleyway with the laundry swaying in the breeze I couldn’t help but think how Yasujiro Ozu would have photographed it so differently — stagnant and beautiful — still, Varda makes it feel graceful and alive.

She uses it as a way to get into the house. There’s a man loitering around on the corner, we see boats in the background, and then we’re past the very same laundry through the window into the home of a working-class family.

The stranger by the fig tree has the locals suspicious. They snatch a glance at him, suspecting he’s an inspector come to turn them in. Sure enough, health services show up to pay a house call.

This is a story of the steady degradation of a way of life. These men earn their livelihood through fishing. But with the local bodies of water increasingly polluted, the authorities are quick to come down on them. Young children are tasked with keeping watch and sounding the alarm so the men can rush back to shore and hide their spoils. But the antiquated ways of kids keeping watch don’t stand a chance against newfangled motorboats. Later a man is taken off to prison for such an infraction.

A movie like this looks deceptively simple and yet I’m able to pore over it with such relish. Look at the street, the shape of a tree, some bit of wood, or fishing equipment tossed on the ground. None of this can be fabricated on a green screen. This is a unique and real-world before us that we get to feel and experience in all of its immediate eccentricities.

The way a cat crawls through a hole in a wooden fence. Women crowd in the doorway to acknowledge the death of a child. A man skipping over the train tracks to greet his love. The reunited lovers walking along a stone wall or crouched in the enormous darkened hull of a boat.

Because La Pointe Courte also tells of a Parisian couple (Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret), who have returned to the husband’s childhood home. They have different philosophies. For him, it is simple but the lap of contentment. Just living is a pleasure. He can be satisfied here.

His ambitions lie with the intricate, extraordinary things — the kind of everyday visions that prove plentiful in Varda’s gaze, but his woman wants something else. She wants to travel — to see more than the humble alleyways of his small backwater town.

We might liken her to a connoisseur of Hollywood delicacies. Although they are not a pair of Hollywood faces and Varda’s camera finds them immeasurably interesting. She photographs and frames them in all manner of ways: profiles, from up above, side by side, and walking apart. It makes no difference. They are totally worthy of her close consideration.

I find it easy to reminisce about Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli another film that ties together the worlds of fishing and apathetic romance. There are even touches of  Ingmar Bergman from the boating of My Summer with Monika and the visual melding of two human beings in Persona.

It also features water jousting a generation before Cesar et Rosalie. But one must once again acknowledge the imprint of Resnais — he helped edit the picture — and La Pointe Courte predates such seismic works as Hiroshima Mon Amour or The Last of Marienbad.

This is not an empirical observation but although both their films share momentarily visible sensibilities — how they glide through space — allowing lovers ample opportunity to quibble poetically if not totally inexplicable, Varda seems more invested in the world around them.

These are still real people to her with real problems, not merely the symbols or totems of countries and generations (ie. Nevers and Hiroshima). And so although Resnais’s characters share some intimacies, Varda’s picture is intimate in a different way, allowing for understanding outside the umbrella of romance alone.

She’s intent on humanity — a little boy licking his ice cream cone — in a way Resnais probably wouldn’t devote time to. The moment develops into something bitter and then sweet. He thinks his woman has left him and then she returns with two ice creams (economy size). He gives his cone to a small child. Rather than a mere act of charity or guilt, he’s probably lost any appetite.

The movie is this constant dance between signs of dissolution — these steps back and apart — and then steps forward leading them together again. It’s romance played out in the moments of conversation and indifference rather than any form of malicious Hollywood tirade.

It’s telling Varda ends her movie, not with her couple pontificating as they wade through a local dance party in the streets. For them, it’s practically a joyous occasion. However, she leads us back to a family as they get in their boat to ride off into the distant night. It never loses this level of familiarity in its humble origins. It relishes them even as it signals the inevitable dwindling of a way of life. Whether Varda recognized it or not, her film remains a presage for coming attractions.

4/5 Stars.

Abbott and Costello Films: Naughty Nineties, Time of Their Lives, A&C Meet Frankenstein

The Naughty Nineties (1945)

The next genre Abbott and Costello took on in The Naughty Nineties was the show boat-style musical. Henry Travers fits as a kindly old ship captain who promises family-friendly entertainment headlined by his daughter and a very familiar leading man (Bud Abbott).  Costello crops up in a local band pounding his drum with a parade off the beaten path. Soon enough he’s getting up to all kinds of his usual shenanigans as the lone stagehand for their stage production.

Comedy like this must have a rightful antagonist: Rita Johnson and Alan Curtis lead a trio of shady malcontents. They’re getting brushed out of town, but they set their sites on the naive Captain. His one vice is gambling, and they know how to bend the odds. Soon he has no recourse but to work with them by their rules. They commoditize and taint all he’s worked so hard to build.

Enter Abbott and Costello. They take on a crooked roulette wheel with the hiccups using a wad of chewing gum. Lou makes himself useful in the kitchen whipping up a feather-filled cake though he gets his comeuppance with a cat burger routine that has him cringing over his dinner after every mew.

Although it’s not very organic and feels like the most shoehorned gag in the story (because it was), we do get one of the recorded versions of “Who’s on First?” standing in the halls of comedy as one of the most revered routines of all time. Partially because it only works with the duo. You need the straight man, you need the comic, and then the situation to put them at odds. Few have done it so cleverly as this one.

The rest of the movie isn’t so lofty and that’s okay. Costello’s running around the deck being chased and chasing. It’s puerile entertainment, but not the worst we could have. If nothing else, his ever-present wheezing, warbling sound effects feel reminiscent of Stan Laurel though Costello’s portly frame makes him feel a little more like a man-child. This too became the bedrock of Abbott and Costello’s comedy.

3.5/5 Stars

Time of Their Lives (1946)

Time of Their Lives feels like an obvious departure for the team. We found ourselves planted in a colonial drama with a spritzing of the usual comedy. Box office woes or not, I’m not quite sure I’m amenable to how they retooled the Abbott and Costello formula. This movie begins as a straight period piece. It can be done well with something like The Court Jester, but it does feel like the boys rarely get enough time together. Perhaps this was by design.

Still, like many of the great comedians of their day and age, they seem to work best when they can break away from the rigors of plot and the confinement put on them by a narrative arc even if it’s for the sake of a few throwaway gags. Because this is what their entire reputation is founded on, and it’s these moments in between where they lose the plot and we gain laughter.

Time of Their Lives is certainly in danger of becoming moldy pretty fast if not for a quick change of direction leading into an entirely different movie. The ghost angle is something — Mister Topper redux if you will — but it feels a bit uneven and not quite in the vein of what we’re used to. What it does morph into is a bit of the Costello and Marjorie Reynolds show, which isn’t an entirely bankrupt proposition. In comparison, Abbott as a straight-laced and tormented psychiatrist doesn’t provide much in the way of genuine laughs. He functions best in conjunction with his able partner.

I’ve already made it painfully apparent, I’m not an admirer of haunted house films with seances and the like, but Abbott and Costello probably give us the funniest version (although I need to rewatch I Love Lucy to make doubly sure). I especially appreciated when Costello the apparition made his presence fully known by rapping his comedy partner over the foot. There’s not a great deal of this kind of interplay in the picture, but it seems telling these are still among the most noteworthy moments.

3.5/5 Stars

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Between the animated credits and their pairing of some historically lucrative stars, Universal does well to promote their assets. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein also shows an understanding of the continued shelf life of IP. If that was true in the 1940s, it’s even more of a buzzword in the modern media landscape.

At its best, we get Abbott and Costello trading off their impressions of some of the most iconic monsters. But more important than that is how our team is back together again. All is right within their world with their patented antagonism restored along with their attempts at menial labor.

Abbott’s bossing Costello around even as he’s somehow managed to nab the pretty girl. It’s really a reversal of the Hope & Crosby dynamic where Bing always seems to get the girls. Here it’s the lovable pudgy nincompoop Costello. Though both his pretty ladies have ulterior motives.

They also have ample opportunity to bump heads with a belligerent businessman. It’s only the beginning of their troubles. McDougal’s House of Horrors is a personal showcase for the traditional gags where Lou crosses paths with Dracula who is very much alive, though he’s never around when Bud comes back to investigate.

Lou can’t catch a break, but of course, that’s the gag. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man, he unwittingly has run-ins with them all, and somehow comes out on the other side still intact. This is the ultimate joke that can only work with a foundation of laughs. It’s his absurd invincibility in the face of all of this supernatural threat and menace that seems bent on destroying him time and time again.

It’s also one of the first movies in their catalog with a dramatic turn — Abbott must believe his buddy for once — he knows he’s not just seeing things. It does disrupt the situational irony fundamental to their brand of comedy, but it comes late enough, we’re ready for our resolution, and the movie pays it off in the most melodramatic Hollywood form.

But it is a glorious crescendo of scaredy-cat comedy, and it seems to suggest to forthcoming generations just what can be done if you successfully meld these genres together. Because it doesn’t merely trivialize them. By weaving together the mythology of the Universal monsters from their own standalone entries, this addition effectively built on all their legacies. 

3.5/5 Stars

Abbott and Costello Films: Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?

Buck Privates (1941)

Service comedies almost feel like a rite of passage for comedy teams, and it’s no different with this early success from Abbott and Costello. Against their hijinks, there’s a blatantly obvious love triangle (Lee Bowman, Jane Frazee, and Alan Curtis) meant to lend some balance to the drama. It feels reminiscent of what studios tried to do by domesticating all the Marx Brothers’ later works with “plot.”

The Andrew Sisters — at the height of their powers — also sing a couple of their best toe-tappers including “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Bounce Me Brother, With a Solid Four.” There’s a certain amount of buoyant jingoism about them. This is a staple of their appeal.

Still, it’s strange to think Pearl Harbor had not yet occurred when the film was shot. The country was on the cusp of something but not yet plunged into the abyss of World War. For now, Abbott and Costello can live their charmed comedic life.

This is the picture that transitioned them from the vaudevillian circuit and really made them lucrative movie stars. It’s all about the bits from playing craps to army physicals and a bumbling drill regimen as only Abbott and Costello could pull it off. They do have a mark and easy rival who goes from police officer to hulking company officer (Nat Pendleton), but just as often the comic tension is borne out of their own self-made antagonism.

Costello is always a hapless victim and Abbott always has a way of either berating his ineptitude or egging him on. This was the crux of their not-so-secret formula. Again, like the Marx Brothers, it’s not like they were an overnight success trying to come up with their personas as they went along. They already feel like a well-oiled machine we can thoroughly enjoy without any reservations.

3.5/5 Stars

Hold That Ghost (1941)

Hold That Ghost finds Abbott and Costello perfectly in rhythm. First, they’re bumbling waiters at a fancy restaurant. Then, they’re gas station attendants and in both places, they find themselves unwittingly linked with a local gangster named Moose, who’s tangled up with a blackmailer and the D.A.

All of this is a set-up because the majority of the picture takes place in a haunted house. Even if the studio added these earlier scenes to capitalize on the musical success of Buck Privates, it does feel like the perfect entree.

Our hapless heroes are piled into a jalopy full of a menagerie of mostly second-rate character players and then dropped off in front of a dark and haunted tavern. There’s a ridiculously handsome professor with his head buried in his work, and the pouting blonde just waiting for him to notice. The third member is a jovial radio actress who’s more than game to make Lou’s acquaintance. I was gleeful when the cast took to the floor of the haunted manor for some after-dinner dancing with some raucous choreography courtesy of our portly twinkle toes.

The dark and stormy night elicits all the typical scares especially because Costello is the king of the yellowbellies (and for good reason). Because while his partner chides him for being a lily-liver, gangsters commit murders, detectives show up unannounced out of nowhere only to disappear, and of course, there are the ghosts.

The way Costello sounds off like a little kid taps into his shtick at its best. He’s known for being hoodwinked and demonstrative in some of their most well-known skits (ie. Who’s on First?), but the dynamic works when he’s totally nettled his straight man with his utter idiocy. One can only work with the ire of the other. The same goes for any of the sleights of hand or deception gags they pull.

They work on this spectrum of perceived intelligence. Costello sees things and protests. We know he’s speaking the truth, but to any objective outsider (in this case Abbott), he’s being unreasonable.

Like Stan Laurel, he’s a bit of a charmed character, and the world in all its many lunacies is observable only to him. His hat is swiped from his head, a bedroom turns into a gambling joint, and dead bodies fall on the floor only to disappear into thin air.

The ongoing candle gag only works due to this same principle predicated on timing. Abbott’s out of view and yet standing just off stage so he comes back into frame at the most inopportune (or opportune) time for the visual gag to take. Abbott and Costello pretty much built a career on this, and why not? I find it delightful even after all these years.

4/5 Stars

Who Done It? (1942)

It wouldn’t be an Abbott and Costello picture without them taking some menial job ripe with some humor to show off their usual conflicting ineptitude. They display perfectly out-of-sync, synchronicity if you will. You have to be working together to be so visually discordant.

Costello’s behind a cafe counter cutting a piece of cheese — Linberger cheese — and he’s about to suffocate from the smell. The customer’s grousing for his food and Abbott’s barking after his pal, who has no recourse to bring out a gas mask…

Again this feels like the appetizer whetting our appetite for coming attractions as Costello keeps on getting fleeced by a kid bellhop. But they’re on to better things because our boys are aspiring radio talents moonlighting as soda jerks.

They meet another professorial fellow, who might be their inroad to a career in radio murder mysteries. However, when the network president (Thomas Gomez) gets murdered mid-program, they have a chance to prove just how good they are at solving crimes. Most of the movie takes place in these stationary interiors, inside the radio set, and yet the boys tumble all over the place as per usual.

What sets the movie a cut above some of the other A & C pictures comes with the supporting cast. Who Done It is bolstered by some well-remembered talent of the era falling into their readily available parts.

Patric Knowles and Louise Albritton are well and fine as the prospective young lovers caught in the drama after losing the good colonel. Mary Wickes brings her ever-wry wit to play up her own fledgling romance with Costello.

William Gargan and Bendix can be called upon in a pinch to lampoon their typically hardboiled cops plucked from just about any noir you’ve ever seen. There’s Jerome Cowan in another role. This familiarity helps carry the lulls when our heroes aren’t front and center.

All the rest of the time they’re hard at work filling us with belly laughs. There’s a familiar-sound “watts and volt” bit. Then, with a killer on the loose, Costello gets beset by transcription machines, stage acrobats, and sound effects; it feels like a comedic jungle gym with so many possibilities for his elastic talents. I’ve rarely considered halitosis so funny.

But just about everything is superseded by the finale kicked off by the anxiety-inducing phone gag I knew in another iteration during my childhood. Every person and his brother is able to patch through their calls in an instant — the world over — and yet the operator tells poor Lou his line is busy.

It doesn’t matter if he has thousands of dollars on the line or if there’s still a murderer to be apprehended. Because he constantly reminds us these pictures are about the means, not the ends. This one’s a lively ride hyping up the melodrama and leaning into chaotic bits of slapstick in all the best ways.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Abbott and Costello

We continue our informal odyssey for up-and-coming classic film fans by acknowledging one of Classic Hollywood’s most beloved comic duos. True, they started out on the vaudeville circuit, had their own radio show, and ran a series of television programs, but it was in the movies where Abbott and Costello became huge stars.

Their patented routines between the portly comic (Costello) and his straight-man (Abbott) laid the groundwork for some of the most famous bits of all-time, not least among them “Who’s on First?” If you haven’t heard of the bit, it’s just possible you’ve been living under a cultural rock. But we are here to rectify that. Here are four films to get to know Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Buck Privates (1941)

Their first picture together was One Night in The Tropics and there were a boatload of service comedies to follow, but Buck Privates was the one that put them on the map. The Abbott and Costello personas had already been carefully tooled on the burlesque circuit and with musical accompaniment by the Andrew Sisters, the picture was a stirring success.

Who Done It? (1942) - Turner Classic Movies

Who Done It? (1942)

The duo’s comedy was best applied to established genres that they can mess around with. If you’re partial to haunted house films, Hold That Ghost (1942), is a fine place to start, but this subsequent title uses the backdrop of a real-life radio drama murder to give the boys ample space to good off, and they do some of their finest work!

The Naughty Nineties (1945)

It’s inevitable. It’s necessary to include the picture with the most recognized version of their famed “Who’s on First?” skit. If you don’t take anything else away from their period riverboat picture, then this number is a must-see. It’s comedy history being documented for all posterity right in front of our eyes.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

If you’re cynical you could say the studios were running out of ideas of how to advertise the boys at Universal. However, sticking them with such iconic figures as Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and The Wolf Man seems like a fairly inspired choice. The blend of goofy comedy and horror tropes is more than enough to place it among Abbott and Costello’s most popular pictures.

Favorite Films of 2022

It was another strange year at the cinemas, but there was a lot to appreciate.

Here’s a list of some films I enjoyed in 2022 and you might too. I’ll probably be releasing some other capsule reviews at the beginning of the new year. Let me know what you think!

No Bears

Of late I’ve been considering the films that leave an inexorable impact on me. Certainly, they entertain and compel us in some fashion as a viewer, but oftentimes the best, most daring projects utilize the medium of film in some unprecedented way – using its limitations and reflexivities to birth something new and meaningful into the world. I can think of few recent films fitting this category better than No Bears.

German director Werner Herzog always likened the filmmaker to a resourceful vagabond able to pick locks and prepared to spend a night in jail if it means getting the right shot. At least in his estimation, there’s such a thing as good trouble. Director Jafar Panahi takes this to his own extreme as he’s had his own well-documented run-ins with his home country of Iran, which has previously forbidden him from shooting movies. Given Panahi’s mentorship with the revered Abbas Kiarostami, it’s difficult not to draw a line between their work. In something like Close-Up (1990) we are dealing with the almost imperceptible dividing lines between filmed fiction and reality – that which is staged and fanciful and what we might term documentary. 

It does seem like Panahi is somehow dabbling in a fiction willed into reality. But it’s more unnerving than we can imagine even if he’s well aware of the ground he’s treading. His “fictionalized” version of himself struggles to direct a movie remotely across the border in Turkey, while he must remain in the country, dealing with woeful internet connections and kerfuffles with the local populous. We recognize a world around him divvied up and made insufferable by boundaries, borders, rules, and traditions so much so that words and reason seem arbitrary and even religious rites and oaths lack any kind of inerrancy.

He’s currently under arrest by the Iranian government and the dark irony is bracingly apparent. There’s both a bravery and a brazen cavalierness to it all. No Bears contends with both the cultural hypocrisies and the ethics of such a tradition as moviemaking. Sometimes things aren’t meant to be captured and held captive by a camera. Sometimes the camera captures nothing – only the innocuous and the quotidian – still, that doesn’t stop it from being feared. 

Decision to Leave

Decision to Leave is a transfixing tale meditating on the voyeuristic nature of both love and murder. But it’s not just about these themes; it’s about how romance and murder are cut together and potentially become inseparable within this indecipherable realm of the police procedural. It’s certainly not a film without precedent when it comes to the subject matter. It focuses on a detective (Hae il Park) investigating a crime with his primary suspect being the Chinese wife (Tang Wei) of a Korean businessman — a man who recently died in a climbing accident.

It works in the same spirals as Hithcock’s Vertigo as we watch the detective become more infatuated with this enigmatic cipher of a lady. His vocational obligations of interrogation and surveillance fluidly become a personal obsession. It walks this nervy tightrope between bleak romantic drama and dark noir while utilizing exquisite cuts between the past and the present with a precision fluidity bringing to mind something like Antonioni’s Passenger. We are obviously in able hands as our protagonist struggles to stabilize after being sent reeling by the effects of this mesmerizing woman.

Director Park Chan-wook taps into a great many elements that have made fatal noir romances a lasting pillar of crime cinema including entries like Memories of Murder and even Gone Girl. But I became particularly fascinated with how it dealt with this cross-cultural relationship. Somehow Tang Wei perfectly modulates her performance between the innocent heroine and perceived aggressor, and the space is muddied by all the ambiguities that come with interactions totally lost in translation. It weaves together a genuinely tragic romance on an emotional plane full of pathos with a mystery thriller ratcheted up by immense tension.

But there’s also a poeticism to the movie going beyond mere visual aesthetics. These motifs probably deserve further consideration – I’m thinking especially of the juxtaposition of imagery between the mountain and the sea – even as the film itself has much to offer a ready audience. The subsequent ending exhibits the fated doom deeply entrenched in the noir tradition. Otherwise, on a broader scale, Korean cinema continues to offer the world stage numerous dark, surreptitious delights. This entry just happens to be a canny hybrid of all of Park Chan-wook’s earlier predilections ready for consumption.

Aftersun 

You will not find anything spurious or mean-spirited here. In its place is a tableau built out of an intricate array of personal observations. Charlotte Wells has effectively harnessed one of the most powerful attributes of film: its capacity to capture time in a bottle both refracted through our memories and the frames of celluloid space. Many of us are familiar with home movies. Our fathers may have captured them or we gathered our friends together to make some two-bit swashbucklers (even Speilberg’s Fabelmans is deeply indebted to them).

But I was also reminded of this year’s 3 Minutes A Lengthening. Because Wells has dealt with time in a similar manner. In honing in on a moment — this seemingly mundane weekend between a father and his daughter — the director has collapsed a relationship down to its essence in a way most of us can intuitively understand. For many of us, time has probably gotten away with us, and we look back on childhood with warmth if not a glassy-eyed longing. 

Paul Mescal leads the father-daughter tandem with a kind of composure that feels ageless and still constantly unfathomable. He is a man caught between fatherhood and a life he seemingly lost as he navigates his own insecurities through meditation and Tai Chi. What makes it work is how present he seems in the moment. He’s not a perfect father by any means, but he seems like a genuine one – he desires to be available to his daughter. However, the bountiful shared history only works if he has an able foil, and Frankie Corio has a lucid precociousness we see in all the finest child stars – exuding naturalism directors can only dream of.

Because her point of view is so crucial to this piece. Rather like a mundane Fallen Idol (1948), it is through her eyes that we must both mediate between past memories and the present. We appreciate her childlike gaze and also the ruminations of her older avatar. In truth, we are all navigating this in between amidst the past and present, the living and the dead. It might seem drastic but surely this is what movies are for – allowing us to grapple with these very things in the most poetic way possible.  

The Fabelmans 

It’s easy for films about a filmmaker’s own experiences to come off a bit narcissistic, but what better way is there to write what you know? In the case of Steven Spielberg, he feels like a generally beloved figure and so this act of self-reflection feels as much like a gift to the audience as it is a visual autobiography. In other words, I doubt many will begrudge him for taking the opportunity. Many have pointed out that Spielberg’s films always have some semblance of divorce and fractured families at their core.

Upon watching The Fabelmans, my mind drifted to the interview Speilberg did with James Lipton for the Actor’s Studio. Lipton connected how in Close Encounters of a Third Kind, humanity communicates with the aliens by making music on their computers – subconsciously Spielberg seems to be tapping into his childhood: His father the kind, pragmatic computer scientist, his mother the free-spirited artist. An entire oeuvre of movies would not exist without their influence and Michelle Wiliams and Paul Dano bring them to us with tender aplomb.

Late-period Spielberg has given us great period pieces like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. For me, these lack the immediacy of his earlier works, and yet, again, I hardly begrudge him because there’s still a wide-eyed joy to each new project. He hasn’t lost that fervor and that’s even more evident when tackling his own family, though he’s now a more seamless technician than ever. In recreating many of his real childhood films, we recognize all the seeds of ingenuity, and it’s possible to see the invention plucked out of necessity.

Whether it’s crashing trains or school bullies, movies gave Spielberg a conduit to take control and gain mastery over what he could not fully comprehend. He’s warned, “Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on earth, but it can also leave you lonely.” It’s a heady portent even as he watches his parents’ relationship disintegrate in front of his eyes and through celluloid (It felt like a far more heart-wrenching version of Antonioni’s Blow-Up).

Still, for any cinephiles or budding directors, it’s easy to see this man (or boy) as a kindred spirit. It’s like a code – carbon dating his childhood by the movies he watches – and sure enough, we see him enthralled by John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). What’s more, in an inspired piece of casting, the old master makes a cameo. It depicts another piece of mythology deeply steeped in Spielbergian lore. As they say, the rest was history. Jaws, E.T., Indy, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and so many more. What a lineage to celebrate. I feel like I know him better than ever before because he has done something far from self-aggrandizing; he has let us in with a level of profound transparency.

Banshees of Inisherin 

I recall watching a documentary called Godspeed about an American priest who was transplanted to Ireland as his new parish. It was a culture shock because outside of the hustle and bustle of the big city or even comfortable western suburbia, he was forced to live a very different sort of life – one of very close proximity. They always say you can’t pick your family, but in a tiny society like this, you can’t well pick your friends either. That story focused on how such a lifestyle forces you to be known by those around you.

Somehow Martin McDonough deals in some dark inverse of this. What if the person you know most in the world – the one you call your dearest companion and drinking buddy – now wants nothing to do with ya’? What are you supposed to do and how do you react in these circumstances? Banshees of Inisherin is a fable and a character study relying mightily on the written wit of McDonaugh’s bleak quill, and the quibbling, deeply heartfelt performances of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.

The panoramas of Ireland are right out of a storybook like we expect them, but this is a harsh, acerbic tale, which also happens to be astutely funny. I’ve not always been a ready audience for the Irishman’s work, but somehow I appreciated this far more than I expected. Sometimes being kind is far more potent than leaving a creative legacy – sometimes that is the legacy – and yet McDonough doesn’t stop there. He leaves his feuding rivals to their own devices. And we are left to pick up the pieces (including a ghastly array of severed fingers).

My own first name is Irish Gaelic and with that comes a modicum amount of pride. It feels alive and pulsing with all sorts of history I cannot begin to articulate. Because McDonough and the majority of his cast have Ireland in their blood, somehow it adds profound layers to this story. It’s as if they understand the intimacy and pain of this landscape in almost unknowable ways. Their world is full of rich lineage and a fierce sense of identity which is as much about community as it is about strife and civil discord. It really does feel like a constant battle. 

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio

It plays like the anti-Disney version of Pinocchio, and it’s more than vindicated in its creative choices. There’s nothing sanitized or streamlined about any of its contours and though I have not seen the Robert Zemeckis version, the source material does seem to fit Del Toro more intuitively. It feels like it can be an earthier more generous version of the tale without saccharine sentiment. The beloved story is placed against the backdrop of 1930s fascism and this measured creative decision evokes something of Jojo Rabbit if not Fellini’s Amarcord, even as Pinocchio is generally a narrative of childish disobedience and ultimate redemption.

Pinocchio is created by Gepetto out of the tragedy of the war and although he’s a beloved creation, he’s a seemingly horrid little boy. To be a fully animated, living, breathing human being is to know the fallibility of the human frame and the depths of death and tragedy. It’s no coincidence Gepetto spends much of the movie toiling away to rebuild the crucifix for the local church. Here is a symbol of the need for absolution even as Pinocchio’s ever-growing nose is a glaring reminder of how often he falters.  

As a child, I abhorred, not the Disney film, but Carlo Collodi’s original children’s book because Pinocchio is such a reprehensible tyke. Del Torro gets that right and his world is fanciful, but not while totally disregarding danger and ugliness. Because this is what the world of fairy tales was made for beyond tangible history and Mussolini. Fantasy sets up parameters for a space outside of our own that nevertheless deals with the most unspeakable and difficult issues that children know to be true so that within this context of safety, they might come to terms with them.

While there’s a talking cricket (Ewan MacGregor), a scowling monkey (Cate Blanchett), half-dead bunnies, and a warty behemoth of a leviathan, what really speaks to us are themes of friendship, fatherhood, and ultimately, sacrifice. As best as I can understand, this is the eucatastrophe Tolkien speaks about where all sad things become untrue. 

Hit The Road

Hit The Road is probably the most genuinely funny movie I’ve seen and part of this is because of the dubious undercurrent. This unease goes unspoken for much of the story, but we recognize it’s there as something that has precipitated this entire journey. I found myself giggling all the way through because each of these characters feels so fully realized with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies we can appreciate even as they feel perfectly calibrated to gripe and annoy one another to no end.

The grousing father with his cast. A chatterbox son who elicits headaches. A mother with maternal instincts constantly worrying about her kids. And an older brother holding onto angst about his future. It’s true these are the markers of a family on a long road trip. But while it’s convenient to provide a comp like Little Miss Sunshine, Panahi is of his own mind and goes off toward a destination of his own design. 

 Rarely do I feel this genuine sense of danger while watching modern films, but whether it’s Tom Cruise’s stellar real-world feats in Top Gun or the societal backdrop of Hit The Road’s Iran, there’s a sense of unease – as if this film in its very conception is a marvelous act of daring expression. Later, the little boy recounts a scene out of the Batman movie where the Scarecrow uses “fear gas.” He’s disregarded by the adults because he doesn’t realize the real weight of his older brother going away.

Again, so much of this is ambiguous and these choices are important. There’s also the decision to shoot another crucial scene from a pronounced distance so our main players feel like mere comic specks on the canvass, but the humor is never far removed from heartbreak. I can’t get the image of the mother driving and singing at the top of her lungs with a forced smile on her face because it’s her only armor against tears. This movie melds both emotions so exquisitely; all that’s left is to marvel at the impact and be totally disarmed. 

Saint Omer

There’s a necessity to Saint Omer’s opening sequences following a literature professor (Kayije Kagame) as she recounts to her class France’s post-war history of shaming female collaborators by shaving their heads for all to see. She makes particular mention of Marguerite Duras’s writing of Hiroshima, Mon Amour – how the author was able to turn these memories of ignominy into a kind of “state of grace.” These moments might feel like a digression, but as the story builds, they become the groundwork for the entire narrative placed before us by director Alice Diop.

Saint Omer has to be one of the most moving courtroom dramas I’ve witnessed in some time. It forgoes using the courtroom premise to build a contentious ever twisting thriller. Movies like this are often won in their grandstanding moments on the stand. Here there’s a completely different approach; this is mostly an understated character piece. 

A French-Sengalese mother and grad student (Guslagie Malanga) is up on the stand for abandoning her 15-month-old baby. Her child eventually washed up on the beach dead. Given the gruesome circumstances, she offers measured, unblinking responses to every line of questioning. Her top almost blends into the wood paneling behind her. We watch as both her shortcomings and her tragedy are laid bare before us and slowly churned through by the pragmatic nature of the courts. The results are imprinted with all sorts of responses, both explicit and implicit, coming from witnesses, judges, jurors, and most stirringly the defendant’s lawyer. “We are all chimera,” she says.

As the proceedings march on, Rama, our literature professor and entry point, grows increasingly affected. She too is Sengalese, also in an interracial relationship, and she identifies deeply with this woman on trial, both for her relational shortcomings and the little indignities she faces. Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue” feels like the perfect summation for me in ways that can barely be articulated. This movie is slow, even plodding to my sensibilities, and yet I’m still trying to come to terms with it.

After Yang

Kogonada’s Columbus was a revelatory experience for me because not only did his exquisite work with The Criterion Collection translate to a gorgeous visual aesthetic, he seemed to make the movie I always wanted but had yet to receive. John Cho headlined a picture, and it was a movie about substantive issues. After Yang is a moving follow-up as the director takes a short story and turns it into grounds for how we consider issues of family and grief by way of Yasujiro Ozu.

In his future, Kogonada has created a definition of family in this multicultural world of ours, represented not by rigid uniformity but by vibrant individualism still bonded together by the human qualities of parenthood and care. I know it well and watching After Yang there’s an immediate kinship of a daughter who is grafted into this family like trees brought together by nature. It is natural, and it’s the way we’re often given to explain what adoption looks like. 

Although After Yang is ostensibly about a young girl coping with her feelings after her family’s beloved robot shuts down, again, like Columbus, Kogonada is able to explore so much more. Her father (Colin Farrell) is able to reach back into the android’s memories and recognize his own shortcomings, which also come with startling epiphanies. It might be a mundane conversation they share over tea out of a Werner Herzog documentary or the wide-eyed wonder in which this technosapien (Justin Min) interfaces with the world.

Ironically, media often considers tales where it is the technology pulling us out of our rooted place in our world and society, if not totally undermining it altogether. But perhaps it also has the capacity to bring us closer, whether it’s to our spouses or our children. After Yang is ultimately a hopeful exploration and one worth further consideration. Science fiction such as this requires a resolute belief in the beautiful necessity of human relationships. I want more of it. 

Apollo 10 and ½: A Space Age Childhood

Ever since the early days, Richard Linklater has been intrigued by the capabilities of rotoscoped forms of animation. It certainly gives Apollo 10 and ½ a very distinct visual aesthetic. But what makes the film truly gratifying are the wafts of nostalgia visible throughout its frames. Backed by a Wonder Years-style voiceover from Jack Black, we’re able to fall back into the ’60s of Linklater’s childhood while being inundated with all the pop cultural touchstones and everyday realities that came with life in 1969. NASA and the upcoming moon landing seem to be on everyone’s minds even as siblings and families concern themselves with school or the new records to add to their personal collections (be it The Monkees or Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream). 

I’m a sucker for these trips down memory lane, and not just because I like to wear rose-colored glasses. It has to do more with mimesis and getting to see a fully embodied representation of a time and era I can never know firsthand because I never lived through its banalities as well as its major cultural events. In fact, the rotoscope images accentuate this aura by giving us footage, TV shows, and even record albums we’ve seen before as secondhand artifacts, and still somehow through this animated mediation, they are rejuvenated before our eyes.

Linklater has always been noted for his interest in the mundane, in conversation, and in the depiction of passages in time. These are some of the joys of Apollo 10 and ½, but it’s also given to the flights of fancy that boyish imagination and space exploration seem to condone. We’ve seen many similar meditations from filmmakers even in 2022 alone. Rarely have they seemed totally self-indulgent. Somehow this is another one that feels real, honest, and intimate. 

EO

There’s no way for EO to be viewed outside the cultural purview of Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, another tale about a donkey who bears the burdens of life. It occurs to me there are two kinds of people who undertake such a project. You’re either so full of the brash vainglory of youth, you have no fear or deference to your forefathers. The other option is you’re so along in years, you need not worry about what others think. You go ahead and make the movie anyway because Balthazar was a poignant film well worth paying homage to. 

At 82, Czech director Jerzy Skolimowski fits firmly into the latter category, and I’m so thankful we have this film from him. The longer it goes, the more entrancing it becomes with the four-legged EO as our ready conduit of both the anthropological world around him and also the tranquil, sometimes utter bleakness of nature. The comic inflections of social structures, soccer pitches, and what have you, feel adjacent to some of the great comedies of some of his Czech New Wave brethren. I’m thinking of Fireman’s Ball or even Closely Watched Trains, and yet this is a film made decades later.

He does feel like the last of a catalytic generation and while there is some melancholy that comes with this, it’s also a stirring testament to the labyrinthian journeying that comes with filmmaking. Somehow this donkey represents the road traveled quite well, and it’s far from a Balthazar redux. Skolimowski has enough experience and humanity to make EO stand on his own feet in deeply moving ways.  

Blogathon: Discovering Classic Movies

This is my entry in The Discovering Classic Cinema Blogathon. Thank you for having me Maddy.

The beauty of the classic film community is that everyone has their own unique, sometimes labyrinthian journey to become a classic movie aficionado. I’ve already spoken previously at length about how a family vacation and the AFI’s greatest movie list were some of the catalysts for me, but I can highlight those again briefly.

Tongue in cheek, I often call my own initiation into classic film appreciation, 2010: A Film Odyssey. 

It does feel like a bit of serendipity the way everything came together like so. When I first found the AFI 10th anniversary list of greatest movies, the newest iteration was about 3 years old. It came to me at the perfect time. The aforementioned family vacation across Middle America piqued my interest in America’s cinematic heritage. Though I was a novice with only 12 classic films to my name, I was eager to learn more. I just needed guidance.

Although I never had cable growing up, I was introduced to TCM for the first time on vacation with films like 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and It’s a Mad…World. Visits to Mt. Rushmore and Devil’s Tower, also made me curious when my elders mentioned films like North by Northwest and Close Encounters of a Third Kind.

Other classics I had gleaned across my first years of life included the following:

  • Snow White
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Singin in The Rain
  • Rear Window
  • The Sound of Music
  • Star Wars
  • Raiders of The Lost Ark

Although streaming didn’t blow up until a few years later, the resource of my local library, the internet, and these lists, meant I had the tools needed to light the fire under me. And I tore through a lot of America’s greatest films with voracious abandon. It was the perfect climate for my adventure, and I did much of it while sitting on the family couch regaled with some of the best productions Hollywood had to offer.

I still remember the first times I got to see High Noon and Some Like it Hot or The Philadelphia Story and Sullivan’s Travels. Even American Graffiti. It was a visual education, and with each new viewing experience, I dutifully opened up one of my spiral notebooks and jotted down a page worth of thoughts on each movie. I ended up with 5 or 6 handwritten notebooks filled with reviews from about 2010-2013 that I still have.

About that time, I started getting into blogging — dipping my toes into the pool of the blogosphere, and I also started familiarizing myself with international cinema thanks to further encouragement from a literature teacher. Conveniently, much of the Criterion Collection was housed on Hulu for free at the time.

It was another progression in my journey as I left the shores of the U.S. behind to travel the globe to the corners of Japan where Kurosawa and Ozu lived or the vibrant post-war humanism of De Sica or the brash invention of Godard and Truffaut. I was well on my way, and the journey keeps on snaking ever onward. 

So AFI was my ready-made gateway. This initial launching pad has allowed me to venture into all the lovely nooks and crannies of the movies available to the curious explorer. At that time, I had no opinions of my own nor did I see what was missing or what might be shortcomings of such a subjective list. I was just excited.

That’s part of the recurring joy we all get to experience and that’s part of the reason I love watching classic films and learning from others all the time because there’s always so much to discover! While there’s the immeasurable joy of returning to one of these earlier classics, now like old friends, my interests keep spurring me onward in ever-new directions to find new actors and movements and to fill out blindspots I’m curious to cover.

I’m still in my 20s, but I’d like to believe my film odyssey that started inauspiciously now over 10 years ago — this journey won’t end until I shuffle off this mortal coil. I look forward to the road ahead with all my fellow classic film aficionados. If I can be of humble service to others, please let me know.

Otherwise, I look forward to continuing on this road less traveled together! Let’s celebrate the canonical greats and venture to find unheralded classics for each other. I look forward to hearing the stories of others. Thank you all for being a part of this journey!

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

A Kiss Before Dying signals its intent with a score befitting a light musical or frothy romantic comedy headlined by youthful heartthrob Robert Wagner. For the uninitiated, the story is based on Ira Levin’s novel and remains all but prepared to plunge into the depths of deceitful drama. This happy pretense only remains for an instant.

The first scene of Gerd Oswald’s picture is between two people we would come to know quite well. Joanne Woodward is turned away from the camera and the handsome profile of Robert Wagner is on full display. They share an intimate conversation as she bawls, and he tries to comfort her. The word “pregnant” was a trigger in 1950s society and so much of the dialogue dances around, but the point gets across clearly enough.

This young woman has gotten pregnant, and she’s not married to her young man. They’re still in school. If you’ll allow me the first of many comparisons, Bud Corliss (Wagner) feels like a less conflicted take on Monty Clift’s protagonist in A Place in the Sun. As a sociopath and a man of ambition, he is an even fiercer aberration of the Horatio Alger archetype. He has no intention of remaining with this girl even as he continues to soothe and placate her.

It’s true that premeditated collegiate crime feels so involved in the 1950s. There’s no worldwide web so Bud nabs a book from the school library on toxicology and sneaks into the chemist supply room to mix a deadly cocktail for his girl. His objectives are explicitly clear.

Mary Astor is almost unrecognizable a generation after her greatest successes as Bud’s mother, but she’s still got spunk. Jeffrey Hunter feels a bit out of place in the picture. It’s true his holding court with a pipe throughout the entire movie is not the most believable bit of business for him. If I’m getting my dates right here he is the same year he was cast as young Martin Pawley in The Searchers.

Whether it’s purely bad casting or the fact he gets shoehorned into a convenient role as a college lecturer and part-time police detective, it’s a shame he was not set up for greater success. Regardless of his handsome face, he usually displays an incisive earnestness propelling him into more interesting territory. It plays rather like the inverse of Wagner’s turn here since Wagner pushes past his outward appearance to give us a brooding performance full of palpable malice.

If there is an element of A Place in the Sun in the movie, then the pessimistic adolescent worldview, specifically in the classroom, feels reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause’s Griffith Observatory scene. In a brief classroom discussion of man, reconciling predestination and free will and theological determinism, there’s this same sense of young people having no idea what to make of the philosophy they’re being force-fed. At their worst, they totally disregard its bearing on their lives.

Then, Joanne Woodward’s unceremoniously tossed from the picture. One wonders if it’s her early exit or the fact that it was an early film credit that made her rate the performance lowly.

Regardless, the most obvious touchstone going forward is a bit of Psycho. The intrepid sister (Virginia Leith) of the deceased starts by joining forces with a man to get to the bottom of the death, though she lacks the plucky fire we might easily attribute to Vera Miles.

As a fairly curious filmgoer, I’m always drawn to performers I’ve never been familiar with before. My own viewing habits have a way of fastening onto new faces that intrigue me — often those who I’m unfamiliar with — but they carry the screen in an impressionable manner. Even in a picture like Violent Saturday, Leith turned an eye with a performance that stood out. Here it’s generally amicable but never electrifying.

The film also has two moments that might be considered dramatic “setpieces,” and they both feel generally corny. They lack the Hitchcockian ingenuity, the unrivaled commitment to the vibrant theatricality of Douglas Sirk, or the impassioned emotion of Nicholas Ray. It really is a shame because otherwise, buoyed by a gorgeous palette, the movie suggests all sorts of kinetic energy.

A lot of it flows directly from Wagner, who is delightful front to back as a conniving devil. I only wish there might have been more of Astor and George Macready and that Hunter and Leith were put to better use. The same might be said of Woodward who was on the road to bigger and better things.

We’ve seen this story done better in so many other forms. I’ve listed many of them off quite shamelessly all throughout my discussion; here is part of the core issue. How can you begin to compare A Kiss Before Dying with all these bona fide classics? How do you even begin to compare it with its source material? Instead, if we allow ourselves to remain present, and invested in the individual experience, A Kiss Before Dying is a tantalizing Technicolor noir.

3.5/5 Stars

Violent Saturday (1955)

“It’s so stupid and pointless to be alive in the morning and dead in the afternoon.”

There’s a lovely contradiction in crafting a De Luxe noir in Cinemascope. It’s visually luscious and still shot on the kind of cheapo budget Richard Fleischer was able to make sing early in his career. This fits its ambitions as a bit of a genre hybrid.

The town of Bradenville is butted up against the mountains with a prominent mining industry. They also happen to represent everything that’s good and decent about an American town in the 1950s. Stephen McNally appears to be one of their ilk, just returned to town on business by bus. He chats up the desk clerk at the hotel and settles into his room.

However, anyone with any familiarity with McNally, knows he must have an angle. True to form, he will shortly be joined by two accomplices as they plan out their robbery of the local bank. The train goes hurtling down the tracks toward town with Lee Marvin and J. Carroll Naish.

It’s a visual cue that feels rather reminiscent of Bad Day at Black Rock, and in some general sense, the comparison is not too far off base. For one, we have the return of both Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. The former is a sickly thug in gray, who doesn’t go anywhere without his inhaler, while still burning with that typical sadism. Borgnine, for his part, has a rather twee role as the patriarch of an Amish family. It’s true the crucial element of the plot revolves around these three criminals convening in the hotel to case the local bank and lay out their plans to break in.

However, there’s also this sprawling, rather unnerving gravitas to the whole scenario. The story introduces a number of key figures throughout the town, and it does a fine job of building out the world from there to make it feel alive and expansive beyond just a handful of main players.

Bespectacled Mr. Reeves at the bank (Tommy Noonan) holds down a reliable job. Like much of the local male population, Nurse Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith) has his heart all aflutter. It doesn’t matter much what she’s doing. Sylvia Sidney is a librarian who has fallen on hard times with the bank threatening her with punitive action.

Victor Mature is a family man who helps run the copper mines alongside the company manager (Richard Egan), who has a troubled marriage. He spends more time with a bottle than with his wife. She in turn can be found on the golf course with a dashing gigolo (Brad Dexter). It seems ridiculously easy for such a patchwork to feel convoluted and yet it rarely loses itself.

Because the pieces always feel attached and deeply entwined in the town’s buried indiscretions. And I’m not just speaking of the clandestine heist. You have the moment when a thief and a peeping tom out walking his dog meet on the street late at night outing one another.

In another scene, the local siren and the equally alluring wife have it out over the man who now lies in sleepy inebriation on the couch of his gorgeous mansion. These mini-conflicts aren’t the point of the movie in so many terms, but they leave an impression adding up to a kind of tableau that’s ripe with all sorts of sordid bits of drama. It’s a world where children get into fights in the streets and small-town love feels tainted.

In one of its most sublime moments it takes a drugstore, that beacon of Middle America you often see represented in pictures like The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life. They’re a local watering hole of sorts and in this film, it serves to tie all the movie’s various strands together in one moment of choreographed synthesis.

From thenceforward we see it all unfold. The tension is a bit like watching all the plates spinning and not wanting them to fall while at the same time realizing a bank robbery is about to take place. The moment arrives and it gives off all the alarms. However, there are other moments built into it. Take how one of the bank robbers — the bookish one — hands a feisty kid a piece of candy, and it quiets him down. He performed the same act on a train with a group of Amish. These are the types of touches allowing you to recognize the humanity and something beyond the mere cookie-cutter objectives of a movie script.

It’s a horrible thing to realize lives we’ve come to understand if not totally appreciate are not sacred. They too can be snuffed out like any of us. Nor does it desist with the violence. In its day, it was probably deemed graphic. Whether or not that remains entirely true now, Violent Saturday is another one of the old movies that actually lives up to its name as much as can be expected.

Victor Mature and the meek Amish patriarch played by Borgnine must hold their own against the three bank robbers after being locked away in a barn silo. In a different time and place, they might throw out the key that the bandits needed and then they would go their separate ways. However, the very sinews of the characters whether its their religious sentiments or moral fibers, make it imperative that they stand up against this evil even if it’s not the devil himself and only a group of man overtaken by avarice and human corruption. In some small way, they redeem or at least preserve the American ideal. They are projected as heroes to the awe of the neighborhood kids.

The only perceivable letdown with the picture might be the way it wraps up. In some sense, it gives us more than we need in terms of denouement. In others, it leaves us guessing, but even in this, there’s something apropos about the movie sinking back into this status quo of post-war America. It gives the illusion of everything being patched back together like all those folks in the hospital, but you never know what future threats will present themselves. Until then, some men get to live as heroes and others have to grieve irreplaceable losses. It doesn’t seem fair.

4/5 Stars

The Long Haul (1956)

Although it was distributed by Columbia, The Long Haul is a bit unique from your typical Hollywood offerings. Victor Mature is an American G.I., who settled in England with his English wife following the end of the war. He has a cross-cultural marriage in a post-war landscape and since this is a British production, you have an American as the outsider.

While Victor Mature often comes off as a pretty face, even a plastic one, movies like The Long Haul offer him something to work with, and he gives it an earnest turn. There’s also some audience identification for the sole fact he is one of us (I’m speaking as an American), and if you’ve ever lived anywhere where you felt out of place, it’s easy enough to relate.

The Long Haul is also subtly a movie of family favors. Even as his bride is hesitant to leave her home country for the purported prosperity of America, she gets Harry a job with her uncle’s trucking company. There aren’t many prospects and it’s tough work, but he doesn’t have much choice if only to placate his wife.

It also turns out to be a dirty business, run more like a black market operation than a legitimate business and those with the most brazen tenacity are the ones who get ahead. Right at the center of the racket is Joe Easy (Patrick Allen).

As far as characters go, he’s probably the most intriguing with his lascivious, take-no-prisoners mentality. Again, he’s a heavy not unlike what we’re accustomed to seeing. Still, it’s up to the performer to make something out of it, and Allen has a brutal kind of conviction that makes him a worthy adversary. He’s not the kind of man you want to cross.

Harry does it unwittingly and finds himself thrown out of the man’s office in the presence of his sympathetic moll (Diana Dors). She’s with Joe, and also finagled a job for her brother — he’s off a stint in prison.

Sans the interludes of out-and-out melodrama and complementary scoring, there’s a lot to enjoy about the world in a noirish sense. We watch Mature as he is handcuffed, trapped in a life and a world he cannot get out of, and he finds himself doing a deal with the devil.

He tries to do the right thing, but the prevailing forces against him all seem corrupt. At the very least, the most powerful cogs are handled by the most devious hands. Over the course of the movie, he vies for the affections of the blonde draped in furs. She’s treated like a tramp, and Dors, while not given a whole lot that’s novel, tries her best to make the part a bit more fragile. She does garner some sympathy caught between all the loveless shows of affection.

Although it’s probably the weakest of the lot, it comes out of a solid tradition including They Drive By Night, Thieves Highway, and even Wages of Fear. The Long Haul of course offers its own British flair (if not exactly Liverpudlian).

The beginning of the end comes when he agrees to take one final load. They are racing against the clock whether it be creditors or the police, and they are forced to take the road less traveled. Their giant cache of furs rumbles through the woods, the rocky passages until it’s finally derailed in a stream. As the wheels come off, we’ve reached a tipping point. The uneasy alliance between Harry and Joe is terminated for good.

Depending on how you look at it, Harry is either aided or hampered by a conscience. Despite all the chaos, there is light at the end of the tunnel. He has a taxi with Lynn headed to the coast. They can catch a boat to America and begin a new life. But he’s not a selfish man. His heartstrings still tug at him — no matter the state of his home life — he feels compelled to be there for his son. The beautiful blonde watches her own plans crumble around her.

While Mature’s protagonist maintains his own private sense of integrity, it’s crucial in adhering to the tenets of noir. Heartbreak is the only answer, and there’s a dour question mark for an ending. While it’s nothing spectacular nor particularly original, there is some enjoyment gleaned from Mature and Dors being cast as tragic companions. In a cutthroat world, it just wasn’t meant to be.

3.5/5 Stars