House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

Like many of the directors of his day and age, Robert Wise cut his teeth on noirish material on his way up the industry totem pole toward more prestigious projects. House on Telegraph Hill supplants a Belsen Concentration Camp survivor named Karin Dernakova (Valentina Cortese) who emigrates to San Francisco on the prospect of a better life.

This might have felt like a very prevalent narrative in a post-war world, but what makes her story unique is her secret: She’s not actually Karin Dernakova. Her real name is Victoria Kowalska but her feeble friend Karin shares the hope of her distant relatives in America. Although Karin doesn’t live to see it, in a moment of decision, Victoria decides to don the life of her friend. It’s a risk but one she is willing to take as it promises more than she would ever have otherwise.

The Allied liberators are decent, enlightened people who handle her with a human touch. They aren’t looking to find her out, instead intent on helping her assimilate back into society. Her first stop is a displaced person’s camp and then her relatives who live in San Francisco.

Richard Basehart is one of the men watching over the assets of her late “aunt.” In fact, he’s a little more closely involved as guardian of a child and his estate. The lady she was meant to stay with is dead, and her young son doesn’t remember his mother very well; Alan does what he can to make her feel welcome. The attraction between them is also of convenience to her as she’s driven by fear and a desire to realize her American dreams. Ultimately, they get wed.

As House of Telegraph Hill settles and finds itself as it were, what becomes apparent are these varied strands coming together. Because it shares elements we see in innumerable films of the same period. The first is the gothic home and the woman in danger noir. At first, it’s not altogether explicit, but there’s an eery sense about the place.

An imperious portrait of a deceased relative sits prominently in the middle of the parlor. There’s something slightly unnerving about it like it might somehow catch her in the lie. Likewise, their governess Margaret (Fay Baker) is built out of the Ms. Danvers prototype, making Karin feel thoroughly unwelcome in her own home. Though this is the undercurrent of the entire movie, isn’t it? It actually isn’t hers to have.

There is this general sense of unease bubbling up from the surface from any number of nooks and crannies. Although Rebecca is a better mood piece and its actors are probably more prominent in their evocations, House on Telegraph Hill not only has an illusory housekeeper and a specter of a proprietress but also a man of the house with dubious intentions.

In order to offset the perceived menace, there must be an escape valve and Marc Bennet (William Lundigan) is just the man. Although Alan is reproachful of his old school chum, he has the kind of good-hearted, easy charm to provide Karin with a much-needed ally — someone to let her know she is not crazy. For that matter, there’s her son, and Gordon Gebert is just about one of the best child actors of the era if we’re basing our criteria solely on spunky adorableness. Playing baseball with his mother is one of the most humanizing activities you might imagine for a young boy.

This general malaise displaces the hope and prosperity brought on by the end of the war and happiness is extinguished by this unnerving sense of unease. It seems the horrors of the Holocaust are given a very real form and expression. We have a paranoia-filled framework perfect for a noirish tale of distress brimming with psychological torment and underlining duress.

There’s a mysterious drop-off in the rickety old playhouse caused by a sudden explosion, and later faulty breaks causing her car to careen violently through the hills. Somehow she survives, and it feels like it could all be an illusion — not just back projections of a studio lot — but also a manifestation of the pervasive mania she finds herself stricken by.

Basehart doesn’t necessarily have a cushy headliner role. Still, he’s good at playing bad with his charming manner and dashing good looks. And yet this becomes a glorious noir portrayal because it provides such a contradictory projection of truth and falsehoods that we must reconcile as an audience alongside Cortese. In other words, the ominous scoring says one thing, while his demeanor says another. We’re always kept in this state of uncertainty. It doesn’t help since we have the contradiction of the budding love affair between Basheart and Cortese in real life.

In Suspicion, Hitchcock was forced to pull Cary Grant away from the brink and if there is one thing in this picture’s favor, it’s that we can still have our villain. True, it resorts to wildly histrionic melodrama in its final moments, stewing in all its gothic glory. There are strings and drums pounding away, as orange juice, not milk, is ingested. If it’s not altogether satisfying, at least it delivers on the kind of cinematic delirium we expect from a movie like this, wearing all its many facets right on its sleeve.

3.5/5 Stars

He Walked By Night (1948)

He Walked by Night is akin to T-Men or Border Incident in its pervasive use of “Voice of God” narration. Today, all of this feels blase and staid like newsreel footage without much substance. Over time, the voice feels a bit like a pesky mosquito not so much in tone or frequency but simply in his tendencies. He won’t leave us in peace. What he is worth are a few minutes of civic history circa 1948 for those invested in knowing something about the distant past.

The real juicy bits are when noir seeps into the equation. To set the scene, there’s a cop returning home from his beat late at night; he sees a mysterious-looking figure loitering around a shop. He confronts the passerby, and the fugitive opens fire.

Quickly, the wheels of justice are notified on the switchboard, and the police force is mobilized to track down the fugitive who vanishes into the dead of night. Like any of these sorts of police procedurals, most of our “heroes” are innocuous types with a chiseled jaw and voices made for straightforward “just the facts” television — Scott Brady and Jack Webb among them.

In fact, Webb would use the experience of this movie to bring a little program called Dragnet to the radio waves. It would take on a life of its own with two subsequent runs on the newly minted medium of television. He Walked By Night is of the same ilk.

Very few of the characters impose any sort of will or inventiveness on the story. It’s strictly by the book with John Alton putting everyone else to task. Boy oh boy could he shoot a gorgeous movie; it shows in every frame.

There is one challenger to Alton’s preeminence because Richard Basehart’s performance stands out, and it’s the most visible and elegant opportunity at something memorable. Everyone else is an average Joe or a victim. He actually gets to do something and embody an enigmatic character with multiple layers and compulsions. Set off by his matinee idol good looks and tentative demeanor, he erupts with wrath creating an indelible impression.

If there’s any downside, it’s only a minor qualm he probably had little control over. There’s never an appreciation or at least an understanding of the killer. In 1948 the movies weren’t ready for that, but it’s part of what makes the movie feel rather sterile. It’s all about the case, which while somewhat contentious, plays out in conventional parlance. The exhibition in style more than makes it worthwhile, but He Walked by Night feels fairly paltry in narrative terms.

It’s true that the real events have a tinge of cinematic drama and in the post-war years, these kinds of hard-fact docudramas were in vogue. But with this being based on a real killer and genuine terror, the creators cannot sketch too much in any way that makes the audience too uncomfortable.

Again, where it deviates or rather executes to the most sublime is through the photography of Alton. It punctuates and accentuates the story in ways that are irreducible. You simply have to marvel and people have done so for generations. If you want a solid representation of film noir, this is it, hook, line, and sinker.

Take a scene midway through the movie where the cops have gotten in touch with a shop owner (Whit Bissell). He unwittingly did ongoing business with the wanted man — not knowing the evasive Roy was actually a violent kleptomaniac. In fact, Roy returns to the electronic dealer’s office wary of a trap.

It’s here where Alton finally gets another chance to spring into action, exerting himself on the movie and forever changing its course. The shadowed interiors bisecting Basehart’s face as he slinks back into the darkness are positively sumptuous. The sound design proves equally striking; we don’t hear any scoring, not one foot hitting the ground. It gives it this almost illusory quality. These are phantoms at work.

When they put out his description, and he’s forced on the lam, it’s the next progression in the picture’s glorious dragnet of immersive chiaroscuro. Basehart makes a daring escape on the rooftops with a getaway set up for just such an occasion. Then, he escapes into the catacombs of the city evolving into a full-fledged storm drain noir. I’m accustomed to the waterways of Vienna as opposed to the sewers of L.A. They play just as well in what becomes a defining moment of the film.

Pounding feet and flashlight beams spell impending doom as they encroach on the fugitive’s position. It relies even more on the juxtaposition of light like a knife in the dark. I know my own timeline is not chronological, but if I had never seen The Third Man, He Walked by Night’s finale would feel even more novel and like a truly slam-bang finish. It accomplishes so much through visual tension and delivering on the manhunt that has been going on throughout the entire movie. There really is no better way they could have gone about it.

Until the very end, He Walked by Night is a performative war between the by-the-book sense of realism that feels like post-war convention, and then the manic, slightly repressed expression that burst forth only after hours. It’s no contest and this bodes well for this ’40s crime procedural.

3/5 Stars

Desperate (1947)

It’s easy to imagine Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) has the life of many men circa 1947. He’s a war vet, and he makes an honest wage as a truck driver. Brodie and the effervescent Audrey Long are stars befitting the budget of the film, but I rather like them for it. There’s nothing prepossessing about them, and we appreciate them for their sheer likability; they’re humble, honest folks.

From the first instance they’re in a room together, they also prove themselves to be an adorably in-love couple, between flowers, anniversary cakes, and news of a baby on the way. It certainly is an auspicious beginning, and yet it’s all so wholesome; it feels like an instant tip-off that this picture is going to hell very fast. It proves to be the case.

Because Steve gets a call to carry a special load of goods. He doesn’t think anything of it, and he could use the extra dough on his salary. Only too late does he realize his old friend is asking him to haul stolen merchandise. This wasn’t what he signed up for, but they don’t care.

Raymond Burr fortuitously has a reputation for playing the pertinacious district attorney Perry Mason because without that there’s little doubt he would be forever immortalized as one of the most vicious baddies ever conceived in the age of noir. There’s something between his piercing eyes, the command of his voice, and his formidable frame that just leave an instant impression. He knows how to use them to his full advantage in the role of Walt Radak, a merciless criminal who also has a protective streak when it comes to his kid brother.

This is crucial because, in the botched burglary, it’s his brother who is taken by the authorities; the other thugs are frazzled but get away, and all of a sudden Steve is in a load of quicksand sinking fast.

Arguably, the creative apex of the film — or at least its fundamental allure — is suggested in a low-lit sequence in the gangster lair. Steve is cornered and Walt is ready to rough him up, literally knuckling the camera. Moments later, the man’s face is disfigured by a jagged bottle, and he’s pounded to a pulp under a swinging light fixture. We don’t see it explicitly, but the scene is so violently expressive; it’s all the more evocative thanks to this very specific stylization. It’s noir at its finest courtesy of Anthony Mann.

Although maimed, Steve does get away, and he whisks Anne out of town, disregarding her pleas for him to go to the police. He’s scared, worried for his wife’s safety, and he wants to vindicate himself before going to the authorities. What it means is that both Walt and a wry police detective named Ferrari (Jason Robards Sr.) are looking for him, and only time will tell what happens when one of them finds him.

They trade out the urban apartments, trains, and trucks for rural farm life, which becomes a kind of escape valve accentuated even visually. It’s the film’s moment of reprieve as they are immersed in Anne’s doting family who agree to throw her a true Czechoslovakian country wedding — what they never had time for before — and they dance the day away.

The ending is already inevitable. Walt’s slimy private dick (Douglas Fawley) is able to locate Steve, and the vindictive mobster comes ready to pay the fugitive a call. With his baby brother’s impending appointment with the electrical chair, he’s bent on having Steve knocked off at the exact same hour. He might not be able to save his brother, but he can get some semblance of revenge. It’s an eye for an eye mentality with noirish stakes.

When they’re finally thrown together in Steve’s apartment, Mann’s not messing around, and the film’s climax delivers both in its theatrics and as an extraordinary exercise in substantive style. Between the music, the smoke, and the nervous rat-tat-tatting creating the cadence of scenes, he goes into those fabulous claustrophobic close-ups of all his main players and the ticking clock smashed together as one. They create an excruciating effect because we know when the time runs out so does Steve’s life.

Mann milks the moment for everything it’s worth and his handling of time is so very effective. There’s not an ounce of realism in the scene. Maybe we have a dining room table, a kitchen, a fridge, but everything else is fabricated and manipulated to ratchet up the tension of the moment. The results speak for themselves.

The final shootout on the stairwell of the apartment building is yet another feat of ingenuity using everything at his disposal from the visual motif to the shadows, even frightened neighbors opening their doors momentarily only to slam them again.  It all culminates in the final crescendo and the ultimate release of anxiety.

It’s easy to see Anthony Mann coming into his own and what a stunning creative force he was. Desperate doesn’t garner too many laurels today, but it capably highlights what makes Mann such a popular journeyman filmmaker. There’s so much grit and tenacity stamped into the very fabric of his genre pieces, whether film noir or his later westerns with Jimmy Stewart. There’s nothing lifelike about them, and yet he magnifies the tension so much so that they function as such a blistering exploration of crime and vindictive human psychology.

3.5/5 Stars

Bitter Rice (1949)

Doris Dowling has a name that sticks out in the opening credits for the very reason she was an American actress and she offered up a particularly memorable role as Alan Ladd’s vitriolic wife in The Blue Dahlia. Here she’s an Italian playing the moll of a two-bit hoodlum wanted by the police.

Bitter Rice opens with a curious kind of introduction. A man stares straight at the camera, breaking the unwritten contours of the fourth wall while providing some explanation of how rice harvesting is a bumper crop not only in China and India but in Northern Italy as well. A moment later, the camera pulls away revealing this presentation is all part of Radio Turin and suddenly the circumstances of the film are instantly placed in a palpable setting.

The lithe even upbeat nature of the picture allows us to fall into the world almost immediately. We have a milieu of migrant workers crossed with bustling train stations, lovers, policemen, and wanted fugitives all playing out in front of us as we try to take in the stimuli and come to grips with everything. The wanted man, named Walter (Vittorio Gassman), tries to mask himself by dancing with a pretty young field worker (Silvana Mangano). She gladly flaunts her dancing in exchange for attention as she’s accompanied by her portable gramophone.

In the aftermath of a chase, Francessca (Dowling) disappears into the crowd of workers to lay low with their cache while her boyfriend flees in order to stay out of the clutches of the police. If it’s not apparent already, a passing street vendor lets us know some priceless jewels were stolen from The Grand Hotel.

If it’s not apparent already, this opening gambit has the kind of thrust we might expect from Hollywood, not a backcountry Italian film, and it’s evident Giuseppe De Santis is well aware of the mechanisms of a thriller. However, he also allows his picture to sink back into rhythms that one would feel much more accustomed to with neorealism and a movie set in the province of Vercelli.

Suddenly a tale of illegals and registered workers is given a new context but timeless relevance to this very day. Francesca does not have a license, but she befriends the saucy young dancer, Silvana, who does her best to assuage the foremen and get her new companion on the ever-crucial list of approval. Her chances are tenuous at best, but Francesca, like so many others, has no other choice.

I couldn’t help thinking, with her chewing gum and sizzling hot music, Silvana is bred out of the same world that supplied movie posters of Gilda in Bicycle Thieves. It’s this influx of American product in its many modes — a new form of cultural dominance — steamrolling the former fascism into submission to good ol’ American capitalism.

The way she flaunts herself and becomes the focal point of the picture, I couldn’t help but compare her to Virginia Mayo in some of her saucier roles like Best Years of Our Lives or White Heat — down to the gum chewing. If it were an American film, Bitter Rice would fit somewhere within the landscape of The Grapes of Wrath or maybe Border Incident.

There’s little doubt it has a kind of collective political philosophy to present — its own vein of social commentary — and it delivers it not only through narrative, but visual depictions of the life these people are subjected to.

In one breathless comment, Silvana tells a soldier (Raf Vallone) posted nearby, “In North America everything is electric!” He’s informed enough to know “even the chair is electric…” As a side note, the Italian constitution completely abolished the death penalty for all common and civil crimes starting in 1948. Already it presents a kind of ideological chafing that must be contended with.

Upon their arrival, the rice workers receive a hero’s welcome, and we are reminded this is a yearly ritual with its own unique patterns. There’s something marvelous about taking part in these seemingly familiar habits even as we see them for the first time as an audience.

The packing of mattresses with straw, the throwing of hats to all the field hands who catch them out of the air en masse. It’s strangely riveting. Or there are the mating customs played out year after year with men yelling over the wall to the fair maidens below, searching for former flings and future partners.

We come to realize it’s built on its own kind of ecosystem. You have the foreman’s, the lines of workers bent over in the muck and the mire every which way, and they sing their river ballads to pass news along the line.

With the jewels to get between them, Francesca and Silvana find themselves positioned among the two factions of documented and undocumented workers. It’s not a simple task, and then Walter turns up again. He can only bring trouble.

Like their opening foray, there’s something about the dance scene between Silvana and Walter burning with a palpable sensuality. But what it also does quite effectively is pluck the film out of its neorealist roots and make it even momentarily something more. It’s like a precursor to the passionate sashaying in Picnic. It feels like very much a Hollywood creation and yet it’s simply De Santis’s version of it.

Likewise, the film is not totally averse to forging its own version of a love triangle (or diamond) with Francesca and Silvana finding themselves attracted and repelled by the conman Walter and another character, the soldier Marco. These see-sawing relational dynamics are the fodder for unadulterated melodrama exemplified by violent pursuits in the pouring rain, passionate embraces in mountains of rice, and a great deal more.

While the rest of the harvesters get overtaken with merriment in the wake of a wedding and subsequent beauty contest, there’s something much more catastrophic going on in the background. Silvana becomes the self-destructive queen of it all.

By the end, I stand totally astounded. Bitter Rice jumps off the deep end going from Italian Neorealism toward gut-busting, blistering drama with the dark tinges of noir. This is what it borrows from Hollywood quite effectively, reminiscent of a picture like Border Incident or even Cape Fear. In tight quarters, violence becomes especially animalistic. When a beast feels cornered, he must lash out.

Also, I still am fascinated to know why Doris Dowling was cast in a film that was otherwise completely Italian, and yet there’s something rather ironic and bewitching in her and Magnano becoming cultural foils for one another. It becomes a far more complicated portrait of the corrupting forces of greed and capitalism.

Dowling, as the quintessential, steadfast Italian girl, and the Italian actress as a poisoned vessel of sensual pop culture materialism. What’s more, it leaves a truly incisive impression and that’s most important of all. You won’t soon forget a film like this, and it just might have the power to captivate viewers on both sides of the globe with its pulpy sensibilities.

4.5/5 Stars

Ossessione (1943)

You half expect cinema to have remained dormant in wartorn Europe during the 1940s. That’s part of what makes Ossessione such a fascinating curio within this context. In fact, the film almost never made it out of the decade alive. One can only imagine how unpopular the picture might have been with the reigning government.

It doesn’t exactly preach good old-fashioned fascist values and Mussolini looked to exterminate the picture completely. Legend has it that Visconti, who had also joined the communist party, managed to salvage a copy so that his film debut could live on and he got out of the war as well with a sprawling career still to be determined ahead of him.

I learned only very recently that Visconti started out as an assistant on the films of Jean Renoir of all people. Not only does that seem like the most propitious of apprenticeships, but it’s also easy to trace the lineage of the Italian from the Poetic Realism of the French Master that would eventually coalesce into Italian Neorealism.

The films of Renoir and Michel Carne are fully present in this early work with the opening images of a train evoking something like Le Bete Humaine or Toni. Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti ) is the kind of working-class hero you’d expect in one of those earlier pictures or even some of John Ford’s work.

He’s an itinerant bum who used to be a soldier and then a mechanic in a former life. Now he’s hitched a ride on a truck bed only to be dumped outside a roadside tavern. And Visconti proceeds to introduce his primary couple through the visual synecdoche of two pairs of legs.

Finally, we see their faces together. They’re in a kitchen. Although Anna Magnani was originally meant to have the role, Clara Calamai channels the sultry come-hither coquettishness quite well even when it’s impossible to unsee the platinum blonde of Lana Turner in the part. But they have their own instant spark, like flint — burning with a consuming passion tantamount to spontaneous combustion.

If you’re well aware of the story already, she is a young woman married to a chubby misogynist named Bragana (Juan da Landa), who thinks he’s more than deserving of the marital comforts afforded by such a wife. He calls on her to rub him down after a long day, and she can’t bear to touch him. She has designs for someone else.

While her husband goes off with the local priest to do some duck hunting, in an early example of a bike-and-talk, Giovanna is quick to stoke the flames of romance with her much more desirable confidante. Visconti’s unauthorized rendition is purportedly more faithful to its source material although it’s hardly as streamlined as MGM’s later adaptation, essentially leaving more space for narrative asides.

When Giovanna clings to the security of her current life, Gino sets off on his own alone soon falling in with a hospitable street salesman, “The Spaniard,” who entertains the crowds. In what can only be expressed as noir sentiment, the tides of the narrative bring the couple together quite by chance.

Bragana is pleased to see their old friend and Gino gets pulled back into the whirlpool taking in some opera at a local tavern. This more than anything betrays Visconti’s affections for the stage.

Consequently, it’s also a film where arguably the biggest moments play out off-screen. I’m thinking of the illicit couples’ first rendezvous and then the fatal accident altering the course of the entire picture. Not all of this is due to content concerns either, but it does highlight how Visconti and his scripting compatriots, Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis, and Gianni Puccini, conceived the story.

It offers another kind of dissonance because we don’t get to see what actually happened even if we’re well aware of their mutual intentions. We must wait for events to play out to see how the canker and unrest reveal themselves in due time. The most explicit response comes when Gino peels off  somebandages and then a violent struggle over a trinket ends in a passionate kiss. This might be the movie summed up in visual terms.

They must reckon with an unsettling state of limbo: freedom that feels more like purgatory as they stew in their infidelities. A man of the cloth suggests that they part ways because people do talk about their situation, real or imagined, and of course, it is very real.

Instead of detonating the story to be a full-blown melodrama like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione maintains these high levels of human intimacies. Gino reunites with his old pal again beyond delighted to see a familiar face, and yet it ends in fisticuffs because his fellow traveler is able to put words to everything he’s currently tormented by.

Then there’s a demure “ballerina.” Gino meets her knitting on a park bench, and they share an ice cream. I had to acclimate myself, thinking only momentarily that she was Giovana, but the emotions in the scene are enough to give this away. Because being around her Gino feels different; it’s as if, ironically, her purity is able to cover all his sins or at the very least help him forget them.

But the digressions only aid in leading him back to Giovana. If they aren’t totally a destructive pair, frolicking on the beach together, having rekindled their chemistry, then there’s some kind of fatalism that needs to be satiated.

In passing, Ossessione might earn the labels of Italian neorealism for its striking, ever austere imagery emblematic of the post-war working class. But it’s also often designated as film-noir for its sordid details and futile finale. However, I can’t stop but marvel at how Visconti was able to make the picture to begin with. Even after its initial release, it was hit with so many roadblocks of censorship and copyright problems only to gain a second life.

What an auspicious way to start a career, especially under such tumultuous circumstances. Much of the finest pieces of art are born out of the burnishing fires of the furnace and, for that matter, a certain level of creative obsession.

4/5 Stars

Germany Year Zero (1948)

Roberto Rossellini famously dedicated Germany Year Zero to the memory of his son Romano. After such personal forays into Italy’s own tumultuous relationship with the war years in Rome Open City and then the interwoven portraiture of Paisan, the final picture in the trilogy feels a bit like an outlier.

And yet in connecting his own recent tragedy with the hopelessness of the German experience, it does feel like he’s alighted on something that feels personal and honest. At the very least providing emotional truth if not always point-for-point docudrama.

The premise is very simple even childishly so staying with the neorealist attitude. Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) is a little boy scrounging around for work, sustenance, and anything else that might be of use to his family in the rubble of the bombed-out nation. It begins feeling out the world, not settling in on one story as much as the mood and milieu of the times. Because it is a very particular moment.

There’s a sense that the film is on the ground floor of something. Since The Thousand Year Reich terminated prematurely, it becomes an unprecedented moment in history — a time to rebuild and put their world back together again — although the day-to-day struggle remains real. You get bits and pieces in The Third Man or The Search and A Foreign Affair, but Germany Year Zero feels like a different perspective on the same events. 

It’s an important film for the sake of challenging our perceptions. Not exactly in the same way as Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer, and yet it’s about empathy and upending our assumptions. We see the common markers of humanity laid before us.

Edmund returns home to his family in an apartment complex running perilously over on their bills. His older brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger) is fraught with turmoil over turning himself into the authorities due to his military past. His invalid father (Ernst Pittschau) is a principled man, but in such dire times, his weakness feels like a familial curse. Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) becomes the maternal figure in the house, and after caring for her father, she spends the nights accompanying foreigners for the evening…

With the spiking black market prices, the Kohler’s are just trying to eke by a living. This is not the way people were meant to live, and it’s a misnomer that the war has a finite end. The repercussions of WWII on Germany continue long after the surrender sounded.

The viewpoint of a boy is, in one sense, youthful and resilient but also impressionable and malleable, shaped by all the people and things he comes in contact with. These are the most formative days of his life thus far.

Edmund takes up the company of other street vultures as they scavenge for survival, some stolen potatoes here, some fake soap there for duping unsuspecting victims. Kohler is callow, but he soon learns this pack mentality through how his friends model certain behaviors.

His former teacher has a charming manner and a dubious reputation, while he uses his former pupils to peddle goods on the black market, espousing a philosophy of survival of the fittest. He’s either a closeted supporter of the Führer and if not him, then Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s this kind of pernicious ideology leading to ungodly Holocaust.

Edmund returns home to the scolding of his sister and with his father’s health being far worse. He’s vitamin deficient and needs a hospital though they’re overflowing as is. The elder Mr. Kohler bemoans the fact that like many in his generation, he wasn’t bolder — seeing the calamity of Hitler, and doing something to stem the tide (“We saw the disaster coming and did nothing to prevent it”).

Germany Year Zero also exhibits a cynical side and not just in the satirical way of Billy Wilder. This feels like real tragedy before us without the happy ignorance of glutted Allies come to vindicate the Germans from their sinful past. There’s no comparison between their lives. It seems indecent to even try and equate the two.

Some might note that the film is not true neorealism, with interiors shot outside of Germany, nor can you very easily call it purely “Italian” neorealism for obvious geographical reasons. Somehow this rarely pulls us out of the experience.

There’s this underlying sense that very little performance is going on in Germany Year Zero. Because these are not actors. They are merely people, and there is a confident sense that almost every strewn rock or portrait of degradation is not set dressing, but something with a natural story all its own we may never know.

We get one final glimpse of the rubble-filled streets, a train cutting through the foreground as a woman’s form kneels in front of the desolate backdrop of total annihilation. It feels like a canvas — the woman an image of the Pieta — with Rossellini crying out into the bleakness of the world. Suddenly, we realize why this movie was dedicated to his son.

It’s no wonder Germany Year Zero was hardly a popular attraction in its day; it’s not a crowd-pleaser. But with the gracious gift of time, we can look at it as a crucial counterpoint. For those back home in the U.S., these were the best years, full of prosperity and endless possibility. At ground zero, it felt very much like the pit of despair, and there were no easy fixes. They have to rebuild from the bottom up. One must beg the question, does mass catastrophe occur at the end or at the beginning of an era? Perhaps it’s both.

4/5 Stars

Paisan (1946)

“Paisan” feels like a ubiquitous term. At the very least, it seems to have entered into a shared vernacular most Americans understand. And of course, this is part of the reason Roberto Rosselini’s follow-up to Rome Open City employs the word.

His newfound audience would be able to appreciate its very simple meaning with some amount of recognition. But it hardly seems like a ploy because it illustrates the core themes of the picture. And this is not done through an epic narrative stretched out over a couple hours time. It is built out of these mini-scenarios coming to represent a breadth of WWII experience between Italians and Americans.

We open in 1943 in Sicily with a group of American soldiers making their way through the villages for recon. As has a habit of happening in these cross-cultural pictures, the English language sounds like tin to the ear, but when they meet our first Italian characters and the dialogue is interspersed, we immediately get something richer and more intriguing because we have both languages dancing off one another and fighting for some primacy over the scenes.

Much of the movie is negotiated in these spaces in-between what is understood and what must be inferred and left only to the imagination. The benefit of subtitles gives us a privileged position, but not all of these characters have the same luxury.

Even when one soldier is called upon to keep watch over their guide in the caves — a young Italian girl looking for her family — we settle on something so basic. It’s their lack of communication and it can invoke fear and conflict, but it can also remind us of our most basic commonalities.

Conversation about cows and milk progress as the soldier reminisces about his family back home in photos. This pleasant interchange is really only a momentary flame, quickly snuffed out. Because we are reminded there is a war at hand and conflict comes from the outside and kills their moment together.

Before we are left to dwell too much on the present, we march ever onward toward Naples. Here is a tale we might see from De Sica and later in Germany Year Zero. It’s a story of youthful vagrants — one named Pasquale — who lives on the streets buzzing around G.I.s like a misquito looking to suck them dry out of pure necessity. It’s an extraordinary scene to watch the young boy latch onto a drunken black MP (Dots Johnson).

Their saga drags them all across town and, again, they hold two-sided conversations that are totally at odds with one another. As they sit on a pile of rumble together, it strikes me how this little boy sees the man for what he has. Yes, he’s black, but he’s American, and what a privilege that is. He runs off with his boots with a kind of fatalistic inevitability and that could be the end of it.

Instead, they meet again in another chance encounter. The soldier seeks restitution and yet Joe’s attempt to get back his stolen property feels almost inconsequential when he recognizes the desolation around him. This disparity is especially complicated when you put it next to the hypocrisy of racial discrimination back home.

He represents wealth and prosperity and still must feel some relegation to second-class citizenship in his own right. In 1946 Harry Truman had yet to integrate the military and, at best, even this felt like a symbolic victory at best.

The way Paisan links together these individual studies in character and relationship means the movie offers up this extraordinary breadth while still maintaining a hypersensitive level of intimacy. Because it takes a single interaction between disparate people and allows them to play out in such a way they come to represent something so much broader.

Later, it’s June, 1944. There’s a voice in the darkness shouting about American cigarettes ready to smoke. Glen Miller’s “In The Mood” is instant shorthand, and it coincides with a dance hall packed with folks. This is a new Rome from the one in Rosselini’s original film, until the military police soon shake up the joint and send the locals into a tizzy.

A fugitive in furs (Maria Michi) evades the authorities and picks up a soldier boy (Gar Moore) on the street over cigarettes. Remember, this is the era of Now Voyager and Bogey and Bacall. They are the cultural tastemakers. It’s a portrait of how even a short span of time — 6 months — can change people drastically, where the hopeful optimism and jubilation of the liberation can quickly be displaced with rowdy opportunism and disillusionment. And with it, a final reunion is precluded in a turn of events that might as well be anticipating the wistful fates of Jacques Demy over 15 years later.

The movie continues in Florence along the Arno River. Here a young Allied nurse (Harriet Medin), who knows the area intimately from time abroad, sets off on a singular mission to find an artisan friend, who is currently in the midst of the local skirmishes. The streets are full of firefights playing out in unsentimental terms.

In one way it feels ludicrous watching this woman and a fellow searcher streaking through the treacherous zones of no-man’s-land, and yet we cannot turn away. In a Hitchcock movie, we might term the arbitrary goal they are pursuing the Macguffin. It makes no difference.

I’ve come to realize that Italian Neorealism has come to signify a kind of emotional truth paired with authentic visuals. It’s not documentary, but it takes the layers and contours of the real world to tell what feels like mini tragedies wrapped up in these individual segments.

Paisan keeps on offering up these nuggets that intrigue me. I think of the next story, which feels like a more peaceful, mundane tale about three American chaplains who rest at the local monastery. There’s so much benevolence even as we are reminded the vocation they follow is unified the world over.

One of the visitors tells his peer, “I think one can really be at peace with the Lord without removing themselves from the world. After all, it was created for us. The world is our parish.” These words feel like they come straight from Martin Luther, a man who looked to democratize the Christian faith and break any vocational dichotomies.

Sure enough, he’s a Protestant and another man is a Jew. This revelation causes a wave of worry to come over the local Holy Men. Surely these guests are lost. They have not found the path because their beliefs are marred by inaccuracies and flaws (possibly even heresy). Rather than digging into this spiritual discourse, it settles for a kind of moral stability, not quite an inclusive gospel but certainly a call for tolerance and appreciation across the religious ranks.

In the final chapter, Italian Partisans and American OSS fight a desperate guerilla war against the impending Germans. It’s not a chapter of history we consider in detail, but we are placed in the moment so we forcibly comprehend the exhausting futility of their tactical battles. They live day to day constantly striving to stay out of reach of a tireless enemy. The only thing keeping them alive is their fierce camaraderie. They fight for something larger than themselves.

The ending of Paisan is matter-of-fact even as the imagery is bleak, and it feels like a callback to the opening story. We are reminded of the utter inhumanity of war, but Paisan was obviously meant to be used as a tool of mutual healing between the U.S. and Italy. Because it’s the humanity bleeding out of the movie coming to the fore, more than any amount of tragedy.

4.5/5 Stars

Shoeshine (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

The Children Are Watching Us (1944)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

The Paleface (1948)

As a kid, I was fond of Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface for a myriad of reasons. Thanks to that esteemed institution known as the local library I was well-versed in the Hope & Crosby Road Pictures by an early age and Roy Rogers was probably second-only to Gene Autry as king of the Singing Cowboys. Jane Russell wasn’t too bad herself.

More recently, coming to understand Tashlin himself — his background in animated comedy and his partnership with Jerry Lewis — gives greater context to his place as a creative visionary. Because it’s true he blends the gray area between live-action and the cartoon logic of animation better than almost anyone else.

In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Tashlin had these unsavory words for The Paleface and its director:

“After seeing the preview of it, I could’ve shot Norman Z. McLeod. I’d written it as a satire on The Virginian (1929), and it was completely botched. I could’ve killed that guy. And I realized then that I must direct my own stuff.”

While it’s true the original movie doesn’t have the same outrageous commitment to comic gags that its successor did, if Tashlin was not so close to the material, he might be able to appreciate some of its elements.

However, before we go there, it seems necessary to introduce a caveat. The Paleface is a film out of a different era. If you’re an immediate impression of the movie is one of distaste, there aren’t any surprises here. Particularly jolting is when they are taken in by the local Natives to die some gruesome death only to be saved by Hope’s masquerading as a medicine man armed with the black magic of dynamite.

But if you have a sense of nostalgia, can look past the blind spots, or have a reservoir of goodwill toward Bob Hope, it delivers alongside the best of his comedies by providing a genre and allowing him to bend it to his will, courtesy of his usual feckless, smart-aleck shtick.

It works by first introducing all the western tropes Tashlin was mentioning. Russell, the feisty female outlaw, Calamity Jane, is enlisted by the government to investigate clandestine operations supplying the Indians with firearms. She joins a wagon train after outsmarting some adversaries in the ladies’ showers. It allows her to do some recon and she uses a first-class boob as her cover.

Bob Hope (as Painless Potter) is showcased with a row of dentistry gags including his canister of laughing gas, which becomes a recurrent plot point throughout the picture. When he’s not getting them lost in the woods, he knocks back “Buttons and Bows,” a tune that has remained a lasting relic of the movie, thanks to renditions by the likes of Dinah Shore, and its reintroduction in the sequel.

Every kiss he shares with his costar is like a rap over the head with the butt of a pistol. But along with being the aggressor, Russell also does his shooting for him on multiple occasions. In fact, when he is goaded into a shoot-out over the hand of a woman in a saloon, the outcomes prove surprisingly close to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paleface was released over a decade earlier). Could it be John Ford was influenced by Paleface? I’ll let you be the judge.

As for Norman Z. Macleod, I’m inclined to give him my good graces given his pedigree with Marx Brothers and screwball-like comedies of all sorts. While he might not commit to gravity-defying visual gags as Tashlin would have — we understand how he would be able to expand and punctuate them — Macleod always seems intent on zipping the pace along and keeping the tone zany.

This suits Hope even as Russell and the other characters allow the story to still stay true to many of the western tropes of cowboys, Indians, and western towns needing to be tamed. This melding of the usual beats with the wacky subversions instigated by Hope is the crux of the movie and blended with its color photography and the antagonistic chemistry of its stars, it’s more than enough to garner a watch. My own biased nostalgia still makes me partial to The Son of Paleface.

3.5/5 Stars