Rocco and His Brothers (1960): An Epic Family Drama

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One immediate takeaway from Luchino Visconti’s Italian epic Rocco and His Brothers is its gorgeous, swoon-worthy black & white that’s absolutely magnificent. It shares hallowed ground with films such as The Grapes of Wrath or The Godfather where the palette does yeoman’s work when it comes to informing the drama.

At its most essential level, the movie is about a poor rural family from the South journeying to Milan to make a new life for themselves. Their patriarch is dead and now his wife (Katina Paxinou) heads up north with her four boys to reconnect with the oldest brother.

Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) is courting a dark-haired beauty (Claudia Cardinale) with thoughts of marriage once he gets steady work. Their home feels gay and bright with the roving camera capturing the full expanse of their household. It’s positively overflowing with family, and we expect nothing less.

I think some contemporary critics were disappointed by its sheen which is very un-neorealist. But it does boast its own brand of truth about family and life and love and all the constellations of emotions that we grapple with every day whilst living with other people. In this way, it shares a brand of authenticity with those earlier generations of films.

Francis Ford Coppola was certainly influenced by the picture, not only based on his hiring of composer Nina Rota but also in a more general sense in courting themes about family. It makes for a compelling ensemble telling their stories in a manner that feels totally immersive and honest to who they are as human beings. And yet it’s destined for heightened tragedy akin to Rebel Without a Cause or West Side Story.

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What a raucous opening it is; it’s spectacular with the families pitted against one another and by families, I mean the mothers butting heads, while their children are left to pick up the pieces and play peacemakers. It feels all too real. Vincenzo quickly finds himself with an angry mother and a whole pack of brothers he has to find lodging for, no wife, and still no job. Everything goes to hell in a matter of moments.

Despite its sheer expanse, Rocco and his Brothers feels simultaneously well-organized and still free to follow the whims of life. Each brother gets a chapter of sorts and yet each one bleeds into the next. They’re never obvious sections and so it feels more like poetry woven throughout a story than hard and fast rules that must be adhered to.

For the time, Vincenzo lands them a temporary place to live, somewhere they can stay on until they get evicted. It’s not a promising life, but the family does receive a couple propitious bits of luck. Newly fallen snow means work shoveling snow, and the boys wake up early, downing their mom’s piping hot coffee, as they scramble out into the early dawn to bring home some bacon as it were.

Because it becomes a story of each brother exercising their worth. They are valued by the manner in which they are able to provide bread money to the family unit. Rocco (Alain Delon) bumbles his way around a dry cleaner weathering all the young ladies teasing with a good-natured stoicism. Ciro goes the sensible route, conducting his schooling so he can land a suitable job at the local Alfa Romeo factory.

Simone (Renato Salvatori) fancies the idea of joining the local boxing gym as a chance at some easy dough, and he gets the biggest break out of all of them. A trainer takes a chance on him, and he wins his first fight, despite a belligerent temper.

If these scenes are only preliminary, they provide the framework to understand our characters going forward. Simone presumedly lacks the moral prerequisites for a lengthy boxing career: a rejection of drinking, smoking, and women. Rocco is called upon to be his sparring partner and his guardian.

After his glorious showing for the home crowd, the brothers proceed to get embroiled in a street fight only to wander off with the pretty streetwalker Nadia (Annie Girardot). Simone’s behavior doesn’t bode well. Life roles onward and with few prospects, Rocco pursues his military service. It’s far from a digression. Instead, it reflects the passage of time

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Rocco is one of those enigmatic figures who watches the world and seems to see everything. Those who think he’s quiet or unfriendly, over time, come to realize he’s perceptive, carrying deep reservoirs to make the most of life and have faith in everything around him. There’s a dashing nobility to him. This becomes even more true when he returns home.

The first person he meets at a sidewalk cafe is a face from his past: Nadia. He, smartly dressed in his uniform. Conservative. She, in her sunglasses looking him over. She’s no longer with Simone — at least they drifted apart — because she was serving a prison term. In Rocco, she finds someone understanding and kind who never demeans her. She feels understood in his company. Pretty soon a subtle romance blooms between them, warm and tender.

What we haven’t taken into account is Simone. The time has changed him as well. Now he’s hardened, disgruntled, and disillusioned with his boxing career. He dedicated himself to smokes, drinks, and pool with the boys. But he’s also intent on ripping Rocco and Nadia apart. Jealousy takes hold, and it’s the stuff of melodrama. To detail it all now would be rote and a disservice.

You need to see it as he brings them down to his level with a wounded tenacity nearly as electric as anything Dean or Brando managed in East of Eden or Streetcar. Suddenly, everything that was so blissfully and right between the two lovers is besmirched. And they cannot get it back. The way the camera clings to them violently as Simone tries to advance on Nadjia feels convulsive. It’s the film’s cataclysmic event.

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In its wake, Rocco ascends in his own boxing career channeling his hatred into his rounds in the ring and shedding tears for how the harshness of the world has changed him. 

As Vincenzo settles into his own familial life, it is Ciro’s turn to respond to the fracture between his other brothers. He confronts both on his mother’s behalf, entreating Rocco, “A seed gone bad must be weeded out. After all, trees are meant to bear fruit.” However, the well-meaning boy doesn’t quite know how to apply this teaching into practice.

Rocco continues on the rise in his singular objective. Simone’s sunk into the gutter as not only a malcontent but the laughing stock of the community — his debts piling up and Nadia staying with him, partially out of malice and a promise to Rocco. It is here where the film’s editing comes front and center as the two brothers go their separate ways.

My mind is drawn to a curious interchange between mother and son as they dialogue on the self-destructive nature of the black sheep of the family:

“It’s not for us to judge him but to save him.” – Rocco

“Christ will regret the suffering he visited upon us.” – Mother

“We’re no longer under God’s grace. We’re our own enemies.”

Rocco proves himself again to be this near-otherworldly figure. He has an almost unfathomable amount of grace for others, and yet he’s prepared for penance and to take the burden and sorrow on his back. He is Christ-like and yet unable to be their savior.

It makes for a dismal denouement drained of all hope. Still, the family must pick themselves up out of the muck and the mire and make a way in life — each brother on his own path. Rocco finds his face plastered all over the news kiosks for his latest exploits. Simone has fallen into disarray. Ciro represents a certain hopefulness — what his brothers used to be, and Vincenzo is what they could have been — both settling down with families. Little Luca’s fate is yet to be decided. He’s indicative of the fight still left to be forged.

But I am left to return to my opening metaphor. Whether it’s Tom Joad or Michael Corleone, and in this case, Rocco, these are young men who made irrevocable choices in their lives from which there is no turning back.

The chasm between who they were and who they become couldn’t be more disparate and in all accounts, it has heady implications on their family unit. What they do, they do for their loved ones, and they still see everything they love crumble around them. It’s not a new concept — it’s not novel — but there’s something distinctly profound in this. Because we all experience something of the same.

My final thought is only this. It occurs to me that the Parondi brothers might all represent the seeds in the parable, falling all along the road. I’ll leave it up to you which ones will make their way through the straight and narrow and which ones will bear fruit. Because human beings are often resilient, and they are often granted second chances in life if they accept them. Perhaps they can remain under God’s grace after all or maybe it’s not for us to know.

4.5/5 Stars

Whisper of The Heart (1995): Take Me Home Concrete Road

Whisper_of_the_Heart_(Movie_Poster).jpgWhisper of The Heart is wholeheartedly a Japanese anime and yet learning John Denver’s “Country Roads” holds a relatively substantial place in the plotline might catch some off guard. After all, as the metropolitan imagery establishes our setting, we hear a version of the song playing against the bevy of passersby, cars, and convenience stores.

Director Yoshifumi Kondō boasts animation both simple and clean yet ever so attractive for those very same reasons. It positively glows with nostalgic yellow hues and employs anime’s preoccupations with the most intricate details — moths drawn to a light being just one prime example.

When I lived in Japan, I became fascinated by foreign music and how it gained a foothold in the country. You only have to look to jazz, The Ventures, The Carpenters, or Mariah Carey to see how deep their imprint is on the collective culture. The same goes for John Denver who made tours of Japan on several occasions.

But whereas musicians often become icons, sometimes Japan cultivates an environment where nuggets of culture can take on a life of their own. This theme serves as a perfect breeding ground for Ghibli’s classic coming of age story.

Shizuku is, at her heart, a spunky and feisty heroine with the kinds of hope and aspirations that often seem buried in a very restrained culture like Japan. In her middle school existence, an unknown person named Amasawa becomes an almost mythic figure in her life as they have checked out all the books she’s so voraciously eaten up in her nascent but ambitious literary odyssey.

They look to be a kindred spirit. It takes a fortuitous meeting with a commuting cat on the JR line to sustain her adventure. The disaffected animal leads her to a Secret Garden of sorts. This one is not found in nature but in the home of a delightful old man.

Because Whisper of The Heart is full of the blushing love of adolescence in its many tangles found throughout the student body. It’s no different in Japan, at least on the emotional level, or for that matter, the utter denseness of the male sex.

But it’s also a very particular world where dwarves and fairies can coexist with the mundane elements of everyday life. Shizuku comes to realize this when she reaches the end of her adventure — the peculiar second-hand shop cluttered with clocks, violins, and shiny doodads of all shapes and sizes. It’s run by a genteel proprietor who also happens to relate to her not so fictitious phantom: Amasawa.

This looks to be the working of Hayao Miyazaki behind the scenes because no matter how mundane we might perceive the world to be, he’s always allowing for bits of magic to seep in and liven up our existences. Implicitly, he always seems to be suggesting we need the richness of our imagination girded around us to make the most out of life.

He also employs the most amicable cultural appropriation, turning Denver’s down-home “Country Roads” into a lively, bright-eyed violin jam session in a Tokyo back parlor. It’s the strangest incarnation of the song I could have ever imagined and yet somehow it manages to be apropos. I only need to remember pop instrumentals of “Daydream Believer” during my former days frequenting 7-Eleven’s in Tokyo. It fits the aesthetic.

But back to Shizuku. Her newfound companion dreams of being a Violin maker and going off to apprentice in Italy. Not to be outdone, she wants to write stories. She’s charged with empowerment and then the subsequent doubts ambushing anyone who’s ever endeavored for such a thing. I am reminded of the artistic encouragement churned up by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that blessed the world over with two of the most formidable fantasy worlds: Middle Earth and Narnia.

Because we need people who will gladly court our ideas, gives us encouragement, and supply even the brief inkling that our passing daydreams are not complete balderdash. If they provide enjoyment or engage with beauty or goodness for just one person, perhaps even this makes them entirely worthwhile.

The sagely old man charges Shizuku that craftsmanship of any kind is never perfect. But we must begin. We need to start somewhere. To pilfer the film’s own metaphor, we are all unburnished stones waiting to be polished to the point of perfection. There’s the necessity of time and effort to make it work. The diamond must be pulverized. The brass burnished. The grain sent through the thresher. 

Again, Miyazaki’s imprint is all over the picture because he is always and forever the spinner of benevolent fairy tales paired with creative inspiration. His avid imagination never ceases to mesmerize. Surely there are lots of magical beings, soaring through the air, lands full of castles and kings, and yet the seat of it all is found in the revelation these very things can exist in our everyday reality. They need not be distant. Far off lands can come to meet us, be it through books or writing, music, or people with memories that extend far beyond what we see and know.

It’s easy for me to laud Whisper of The Heart for being timeless. Yes, we see word processors, a dearth of cell phones, more antiquated train services, and yet so much of the interactions, the yearnings, and the derivations are universal.

I must turn my attention only to the sound of cicadas, the warning bell near the train tracks, or the clink of a mailbox at the front door. They are so basic, so unextraordinary, and yet they sound so familiar. To my ears, they remain almost comforting. Because this movie is comfort food, whether you fancy udon or steak and potatoes.

Full of warmth. Love. Longing. Passion. Miyazaki and Ghibli have captivated the world over with such sensations. Yoshifumi Kondō more than proved himself capable of eliciting this same type of wonder. It’s only a shame he was not able to give us more films. But there only needs to be one solitary act of creation to leave an impression. Whisper of The Heart is an unassuming monument to his career.

4/5 Stars

The Yearling (1946): A Boy and His Deer

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“When I was a child I spake like a child…” ~ 1 Corinthians 13

Like the previous year’s Valley of Decision, The Yearling opens with an establishing shot paired with Gregory Peck’s voice, this time in a folksier register. Aside from being unoriginal, one can hardly condemn director Clarence Brown for an act of plagiarism.

However, what it does go to exemplify is a certain amount of unspoken structure supplied to Old Hollywood films. This shorthand, along with needlessly informational title cards, feel very much like the bane of the era’s filmmaking. It’s as if with the age of the talking picture, film’s forgot about the primacy of the image and as such, they dumbed down movies for their audiences. After all, it’s so easy for dialogue to become a constant crutch to fill in any ambiguities.

Even despite this aspect, The Yearling still has innumerable elements going for it. Gregory Peck is a fine actor, even making ho-hum voiceover moderately palatable, and the gorgeous Technicolor tones of nature within the film are breathtakingly resplendent. In fact, the movie proves a well-situated follow-up to Brown’s earlier success, National Velvet. It is a portrait of pioneering before the days of Old Yeller, joining together such lucrative elements as adolescence and animals.

The adolescent in this tale, adapted from Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s eponymous novel, is Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.), and the fauna deserves mentioning later on (although you probably already know what it is).

For now, the amiable Penny Baxter (Peck) and his boy form a bit of a good-natured partnership, sticking together as the men of the house. Their chemistry is undeniable making their onscreen pairing as father and son ripe with all kinds of affection. None of it feels like a fake veneer plastered on for the benefit of the audience.

The third member of the Baxter household is Ora (Jane Wyman), the no-nonsense wife and mother who’s both homely and severe, completely different than her kinfolk. Still, there’s something within her that Wyman does so well to intimate through her characterization. Thus, despite all she says and does that under normal circumstances might make us dislike her, most will find it within themselves to give her the benefit of the doubt. So much of it is understated and unspoken even as she never gives an inch. Her maternal heartbeat is undeniable although it maybe periodically obscured.

The Yearling really is fable-like by providing an impression of a way of life focused on a frontier family and more directly, the young boy who grows up right before our very eyes. While there is a narrative of sorts — all the events can be strung together as subsequent rungs in the journey — it’s mostly a vignette-driven piece meant to reflect the vicissitude of life.

One moment father and son are streaking through the forest with the family dogs to subdue ol’ Slewfoot, the ornery bear who mercilessly slaughtered one of their livestock. It becomes a lively jaunt and the first lesson in the boy’s nascent repertoire.

Due to the utter uselessness of his firearm in the tense encounter with the bear, Penny takes it upon himself to acquire a new weapon, and he manages quite ably through a bit of horse-trading with the nearest neighbors. One of the bunch is an ornery fellow also easily duped. By the end of the confrontation, he’s given up a beautiful rifle for an underperforming pooch.

Then there are the momentous trips into town to pick up materials at the general store. Mama is still dreaming of a well someday, and the obliging shopkeeper (Henry Travers) offers the boy a mouth organ as he comes face to face with a girl his own age. It’s hardly young love.

Instead, father and son get involved in a right neighborly brawl in the center of town, which is yet another of the film’s more jocular moments. It’s not afraid of the humor to punctuate the drama of life.

Because the next scene of note is really the turning point. Out in the forest, Penny is bitten by a rattler and fortuitously he’s able to shoot a nearby doe using the bodily organs to draw out the poison. It’s a scary incident leaving the man of the house weak and his son aims to take the orphaned doe as the pet he’s always been begging for.

The rapturous crescendo of angelic audio grandeur introducing our true main character is laid on a bit thick. However, if your heart is ready to be melted and you have held onto a shard of childhood innocence, The Yearling can remain a powerful tale of youth. No scene is more emblematic than this one.

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The film’s title comes front and center once again as we watch the parallel characters of a growing boy and his growing companion. He dotes over the little deer taking him to bed and imploring his mother not to take his pride and join away from him. Though the animal ruins them on multiple occasions trampling their crops.

If it’s not the fault of a creature, then nature whips up its own retribution. Their next tribulation is carried out by a torrential downpour decimating their hard-earned crops and sending emotions to a fever pitch. Evoking the sufferings of Job hardly seems a welcomed antidote to their plight.

But then, something begins to happen. A boy is becoming a man as he begins bearing the load of toil normally carried by his obliging father. He builds a fence to keep his deer out while fixing up their camp.

Then, they must say goodbye to a newlywed bride and groom. We don’t know them well but the family is deeply affected. Their exit by sea is a bittersweet departure, and as they ride back home Jody glumly notes, “I don’t like people going away it’s like they were dying.” His father only condolence is an honest observation, “That’s life boy. Getting and losing.” He must come to accept it. Death, goodbyes, trials; they never exactly get easier, but we must do our best to push through them with the support of our loved ones.

The Yearling might seem lightweight compared to some similar stories, but one must try and recall our own childhoods, where any number of thoughts and feelings experienced for the first time became monumental markers of life. That first pet you had. The death of a friend. The first girl you ever had a crush on. Each takes on varying degrees of importance in The Yearling and even for a story rich in sentimentality, these really are moral parables at their core.

Because it strikes some balance between maintaining a child-like wonder and zest for life while also understanding sometimes we must literally put to death our former ways. Finding that balance just might be one of the keys to a meaningful existence.

3.5/5 Stars

The Nutty Professor (1963): Jerry Lewis is Jekyll and Hyde

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I can bemusedly remember more than a few trips out to the high school football fields as our designated evacuation point for fire drills. The other times we ended up out there was more likely than not due to the chemistry department setting them off with some supernal explosion of their own devising. You can only imagine it being a giddy badge of honor among these grown-up nerds.

In full disclosure, I must admit being indebted to Disney’s Absent-Minded Professor for creating my paradigm for the mad scientist. Jerry Lewis takes this readily available archetype to set up an analogous comic cocktail — albeit to the utmost extremes — marrying it with one of his own creations: Julius Kelp.

The Nutty Professor‘s gloriously campy color schemes are all the better for this wonky Jekyll and Hyde riff. Rooms look like they’re all but made out of cardboard and as such, every interior and visible prop feels expendable. School officials (Del Moore) and secretaries (Kathleen Freeman) are either high-strung or chatty cartoon characters.

In one exemplary moment, Lewis all but railroads the usually fastidious chancellor into doing an impromptu rendition of Hamlet on his office table. A modicum amount of ego-schmoozing effectively makes a complete mockery of the man with typical Lewis lampoonery.

Likewise, the interminable supply of handsomely-clothed, virile male co-eds all look like they either play quarterback or shooting guard for their respective sports teams. And all the pert young women are a similar picture of All-American, bright-eyed ideals.

Considering these elements, The Nutty Professor is derived mostly from performances more than being gag-driven; the jokes come organically out of character. I’ll fall back on my normal diagnosis of Lewis comedies, namely, the plot too often gets in the way.

Kelp is a walking stereotype, but he’s also an endearing Jerry Lewis creation, complete with outrageous buck-teeth, googly glasses, a lexical vault full of spoonerisms, and probably the worst excuse for a haircut in the history of the movies. If we can risk being facetious momentarily, these are all very calculated decisions. It’s a visual statement made all too obvious; this man is a loser.

The childishly simple premise digs into these same themes. Although there might only be one or two isolated occurrences we can think of, Kelp attempts to combat a bully in his class who pushes him around. Since it’s not altogether overwhelming conflict, we must consider this to be partially his own inferiority complex speaking.

It doesn’t help a pretty student like Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) simply reinforces all of his inadequacies. Because she is yet another paradigm with her hairbows and schoolgirl charms.  She is caught between the dorky loser and the vain, devilishly handsome lady killer. The question remains: Where do her values lie?

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If I haven’t spoiled the punchline already, there is an obvious road the zany tale must traverse. Around his new fitness regimen, Julius acquires a carload of books from the library; his results spawn a most curious potion. One would think he’s transforming into a werewolf or something. Actually, it’s far worse: Enter Buddy Love (also played by Lewis).

If you don’t hear the imaginary notes of “Love Potion No. 9” performed by The Coasters or The Searchers (depending on your preference), then your brain isn’t as formulaic as mine.

Regardless, Kelp’s alter ego soon finds himself waltzing into the local collegiate watering hole, the aptly christened Purple Pit. There Buddy Love makes his self-assured debut, hair plastered down, smoking a cigarette, and owning his outrageous duds. He catches everyone gawking on the street, and it’s much the same on the inside — showcasing a Lewis POV shot allowing us inside his conceited head.

It’s easy to consider The Nutty Professor a vanity project on a cursory level. Because Jerry Lewis is always at the center of this universe. Take the moment he’s supposed to be the devilishly handsome Love and literally, the whole club comes to the standstill. It’s absolute absurdity.

But in some ways, this perspective just doesn’t take because although Lewis is at the center of everything, he’s willing to look like a dorky, bumbling, idiot just as much if not more so. Someone who can do that has to be at least somewhat comfortable in their skin or at least content with putting on the charade of an utter doofus.

It relies completely on his dual role and Lewis’s own capacity — having the world constantly revolve around him — self-promoting himself and simultaneously tearing himself down. The tightrope walk is a compelling one.

Some have posited Buddy Love is a not-too-subtle shot at Dean Martin as the former compadres were still broken up after a fairly acrimonious split. Lewis instead denied these assertions by suggesting it was a knock on all the vainglorious phonies he had met on his long stint in show business. It seems just as likely The Nutty Professor could even function as a dialectic to examine Lewis’s own persona.

One can only imagine, in some outrageous universe, where the fulcrum between Lewis’s own worst and best selves would fall along the spectrum of his two cinematic creations. On one side, he has this image as a klutzy uncouth man-child and yet we must reconcile this with his authoritative vision as a director and a subsequent product of the same show business machine.

He was the one who could brazenly claim so much fame, success, and accomplishment at such an early age. It’s difficult to envision a world where circumstances didn’t go to his head even a little bit. And if there is not already a piece of Love in him, then at least we can acknowledge there is a risk of such a persona cropping up.

If The Bellboy had a family-friendly moral tacked on at the end, then The Nutty Professor is much the same with a few more lines devoted to a theme. Because the inevitable happens and the worlds collide — Jerry or Love or Kelp is ousted as his true self, after masquerading in front of all these people. What a horrible ordeal to slog through.

However, he finds some words. They go like this: “You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you’re gonna have to spend with you. If you don’t think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?”

It’s a compelling message even if the preceding content is all over the spectrum. Along with the science-fiction, we have the audience-appointed fairy tale ending with the guy getting the girl. There need not be more explanation. The Nutty Professor rumbles through all our expectations.

I do find it strangely compelling having all the main players bow in the end credits. It’s like the curtain call in a play where everything is far more intimate. Of course, Jerry Lewis puts his lasting mark on this one by falling into the camera and shattering it. We would expect nothing less.

3/5 Stars

Little Women (2019): Gerwig’s Spirited Adaptation of An American Classic

Little_Women_(2019_film)I once had the opportunity to tour Louisa May Alcott’s house on a family vacation. It’s one of those experiences I’m not sure you appreciate until you have the time and space to look back on it.

However, even then I think there was this innate understanding of how this beloved book was sewn into the very fabric of Alcott’s life and her family home in Concord, Massachusetts. You cannot begin to separate the two.

What’s so intriguing about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is how it almost conducts an intertextual dialogue with the source material. It frames its story — the creation of a novel and its main character of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) — in order to map out something of Alcott’s life too. Because, again, they are very much intertwined. 

From what little I know about her, she seemed an equally driven, independent, and brilliantly-minded individual. In her own life, she never got married (unlike her characters) and she also provided for her family.

The movie itself has a brazen free-flowing structure taking material some of us might know intimately (and others not quite so well) and finding renewed meaning. To explore plot feels inconsequential — and not just because it is so familiar — Little Women is, by its very nature, anecdotal. It’s about the passage of time as girls evolve into women without ever being totally beholden to any singular event. 

If I might make a wildly unsubstantiated reference it comes off a bit like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), at least in form, where wild expanses of time are chopped up and compressed into these fluid increments. It feels like a young person’s version of an old person’s book. It courts the timelessness already present but, far from being stodgy, the movie burst with its own vigor, always lithe on its feet.

But this also funnels down to the staging and characterizations as well. Especially for the scenes set during their early years, it’s obvious the writer-director tries to capture the near-spontaneous, giddy energy that’s often the fuel of sisterhood. It can be an overwhelming force of nature full of emotion, affection, and contention in all the most meaningful of ways.

Even as someone with only a modicum amount of knowledge about Little Women (mostly from previous movie versions) Greta Gerwig shows such an immense appreciation for the material, she almost willfully carries us along with her. Even when we’re not quite sure what she’s doing or where she’s taking us, we learn to trust her decisions. If nothing else, she cares about these characters as much if not more than we do.

It’s true her version starts in what is normally considered the end of the narrative, as it slaloms back and forth from past to present with ease. All the moments, as far as I can recall, have antecedents in earlier versions, but as Gerwig stitches them together, it’s as if they are rejuvenated and given rebirth — a new context in which to be understood.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is how each sister in this newly minted construction is given their own definition and the ability to stand on their own two feet. Because, if you recall, Jo March has always been the undisputed star of these movies; she has provided the central protagonist and P.O.V. from which to understand these stories. If we are to believe Gerwig, Jo essentially wrote them after all.

There’s no denying Saoirse Ronan is our through-line in the narrative here as well amid all its undulations and purposeful digressions, and yet it feels like I get to appreciate the other March girls in ways I never have before. I don’t think it has much to do with star power — because traditionally there have been big names in most of the roles. Again, it is Gerwig who gives each a platform and her players graciously oblige.

Florence Pugh modulates wonderfully between moments of girlish cattiness and whining while simultaneously setting her eyes on mature ambitions, whether it be marriage as an advantageous business proposition or aspiring to be a great artist taken to Paris by Aunt March.

Far from simply capturing the past and the present of Amy, Pugh somehow makes the most complicated, even unlikable sister come out, in the end, gaining our deepest admirations (and sympathies). For those unaware of Pugh’s talent, it stands as yet another breakout performance.  

Emma Watson is able as the decent and contented Meg whose life still spills out of the mold of propriety she’s always been relegated to. There’s a bit more to her. Then Amy (Eliza Scanlen) remains the gifted musician and somehow the purest and most naive of them all. Her purpose is to fill the world with goodness and beauty. Some things never change.

Marmy (Laura Dern) — the family’s moral anchor — might come off an angelic goody two shoes quoting scripture judiciously (ie: “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”). It could be a little much, that is until you realize her love is genuine, and she’s worked on it for an entire lifetime. Meryl Streep could probably play Aunt March in her sleep, and it’s not just a figure of speech; she does. Her performance is generally prickly and imperious while also belying a suspected soft underbelly. 

Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), as always, is found on the outside looking in at the March’s household. Their brand of enveloping community is so attractive you yearn to be a part of it, drawn into the fold as one of their kindred. After obliging with a token of his good-will, he quips “man is not made to live on books alone.”

In truth, I’ve never appreciated Chalamet more. There always seemed to be a pretentiousness drawn about him. Here there was something a bit different. It might have been the merit of Laurie teasing it out, but he felt slightly more animated and alive in a way that makes him likable. Although he is a man bred in affluent spheres, he nevertheless, hates their stuffiness.

He would rather dance a jig with Jo, and he calls out the March sisters when they falter into the general public’s pettiness because he knows the people they really are in the familiarity of their own home. In fact, he has tussles with nearly every sister, but never out of malice; there’s always such genuine care, even love, in its multifaceted forms. 

What I truly appreciate about Gerwig’s relationship with the text is how she openly courts contrasting ideas. Specifically, there are threads of feminism coursing through the narrative even as they extrapolate off ideas Alcott dealt with years ago.

And yet in the same instance, she does not shy away or completely dismiss romantic love or a more traditional desire for marriage. Case and point is Meg who is genuinely glad to be courted by a decent man she loves before raising a family together, in spite of their poverty. For Meg, this life fills her up with joy

So in some sense, Gerwig’s having her cake and eating it too paying deference to a timeless piece of American Literature while still perceiving it through her own personal creative lens.

You might say this even from a casting perspective with Ronan, Chalamet, and Tracy Letts all being holdovers from Lady Bird (2017). It might be the importance placed on female relationships, or the buoyancy frolicking with a sweeping passion through the storyline.

We get the happy ending if we so choose while also being allowed the space to consider an alternative. It doesn’t feel wishy-washy. Instead, it’s engaged with the enigma of Louis May Alcott herself even as it’s engaged with the process of creating art.

For me, it has the best of both worlds. Little Women has not been compromised and yet we have not been gipped of Gerwig’s own cinematic vivacity. While it’s not a perfect adaptation — not always intuitive to follow — it never scrimps on life-giving vitality.

You can note the humanity in profound new ways mined from a novel that’s been culled through and cherished for generations. I’ve never believed Little Women was a “women’s picture” or just for an American audience.  It is, in fact, universal. 

4/5 Stars

Friendly Persuasion (1956): Gary Cooper’s Quaker Clan

220px-Poster_-_Friendly_Persuasion_01The when is 1862. The where is Southern Indiana. We find ourselves in the throes of Quaker country as envisioned by novelist Jessamyn West and brought to the screen by his eminence, William Wyler.

What follows is a lovely opening gambit with a goose about as anthropomorphic as they come without completely shattering the sense of movie realism. He nips our little narrator, a Quaker lad named Jess (Richard Eyer) in the seat of the pants to punctuate our mellow tale on a comical note.

Authenticity, historical, religious, or otherwise, is not what Friendly Persuasion is concerned with. We might call it into question on any number of accounts. Still, it is packed full with enough tweeness for every “thee” uttered by the kindly Quakers who exist within the frames.

The gentle satire is of a certain warmth and unassuming candor, we cannot help but smile at because unadulterated goodness leaves behind a luster. Indeed, it is one of the finest attributes of the picture. Their matriarch (Dorothy McGuire) is zealously religious and abhors violence, but we can hardly label her unkind. Meanwhile, the man of the house (Gary Cooper) is about as genial as they come.

As with most small-town communities, about the most exciting experience you can possibly partake in is a traveling carnival. Imagine you’re a Quaker and then every stray stimulus and forthcoming attraction becomes 10 times more novel.

The ascetic folks pushing the boundaries of their normal sensibilities is played for a bit of humor. It might be dancing a jig gaily with a handsome beau, trying a hand at a musical instrument a salesman is trying to peddle, or a young boy getting the itch for gambling in the form of the ever-dubious shell game.

Cooper winds up winning a pair of sleeve holders, which look eerily similar to a pair of garters, while a stocky Quaker boy gets caught up in a wrestling match only to back down as it begins to impinge on his beliefs. He has vowed like all his brethren never to hurt anyone. From an outsider’s perspective, it is perceived as weakness and worse yet a dereliction of duty when it comes to fighting for your country. Because the Civil War is on everyone’s mind.

Friendly Persuasion becomes a diluted effort due to its length, which, while giving adequate time for many asides and quaint observations, takes away from the import of the material. It’s not quite capable of navigating the straights between social issues and jocularity — it’s never quite assured — settling for a rocky path.

The young soldier, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), is the force tying the family to the war directly as he has eyes for their daughter, while still maintaining his duty toward the Union Army. It stays in the periphery for a time. However, it’s inevitable, with the extent the war is spreading, they must make decisions of their own. This is what is being set up for each individual character, and they must react accordingly.

However, this is not solely about a message of pacifism, but in a society split up of many religious sects and political factions, it is a film with some sense of continued relevance. It even dabbles with the same dichotomy as Sergeant York (1941), having to do with the commandment entreating the adherents not to murder. The question remains: is there a semantic difference between murder and killing? More important still, is there a difference in the hearts of men. The film has to forge its own path.

Separately, Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire appear suited for the material as they both bring a certain sensibility and ingrained honesty to nearly every part. Side by side, the chemistry between the two of them seems relatively absent and not simply because of their mundane temperaments. It could do with the fact Coop never wanted the actress to play opposite him, to begin with. Ingrid Bergman was his choice, but she passed on it.

Anthony Perkins’ role is slight in the way all his performances seem to be, and yet their unassuming skittishness somehow imbues them with their own brand of resonance. It’s true, after only his second film, the writing on the wall said he was destined to be a great star. They weren’t wrong; his career just didn’t end up quite as people might have expected. Of course, Norman Bates was a jarring subversion of his image, simultaneously redefining (and typecasting) it for all posterity.

While it’s easy enough to think of them as being on different strata, Perkins feels like he could easily be an earlier version of Tommy Kirk from Old Yeller (1957). Where a boy is put through the gauntlet and must come to terms with harsh realities of life. Of course, McGuire would again play the maternal figure in the latter Disney production.

In this picture, she gets her moment with the homestead being overrun with Rebs. Doing her best to keep her composure through hospitality, she nevertheless lets one of them have it over the head with a broom for going after the family goose. Cooper’s own confrontation with a Rebel soldier occurs in an open clearing, serving as his final test and a bit of a case study the film puts in front of us.

He passes, and it’s not what we usually expect from Cooper. Not only were audience expectations undone, but Cooper himself seemed to think the hero he was, and played on-screen, would have normally acted differently. We can make a judgment call on whether or not he was right.

One is reminded High Noon (1952) succeeded in its storytelling with a lean running time featuring a very concrete progression of scenes. Coop was an archetypal hero, even one of the western greats in Will Kane, but we also know where we will be going when the clock strikes 12. There is not the same urgency to Friendly Persuasion — it’s much looser  — ultimately too good-natured to hammer home its themes with any amount of authority. There’s no fault in a lighter tone per se, but it could have amounted to a whole lot more providing there was tauter plotting.

3/5 Stars

A Christmas Carol (1938) and The Meaning of Humbug

achristmascarol1938In viewing the 1951 version of the Christmas classic, I took particular interest in the name of our protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, attempting to redeem it for the masses. For this picture, I was curious in considering another integral term in our lexicon: Humbug.

The term is so ubiquitous and elicits such an explicit connotation, one surmises it loses much of its inherent meaning. What is humbug exactly? To put it simply: hypocrisy. And it’s telling coming from the lips of Scrooge.

It suggests, in his contorted world, he believes himself to be the only honest soul in Britain because he is not taken in by this pipe dream of Christmas. Of celebrating when you have nothing and giving when it probably won’t do any good anyway. He cannot understand how joyous his nephew manages to be, despite being no better than a pauper. In fact, Scrooge holds scorn for just about everyone.

There are actually some prominent revisions to the traditional story that generally succeed in adhering to the tone this picture is searching out. An opening connection is made between Scrooge’s merry nephew Fred and the Cratchit boys. They have quite a time of it sliding across the ice together — even crippled Tiny Tim — riding on the young man’s back.

Fred finally makes it to the offices of Scrooge and Marley paying his yuletide greetings to the jovial yet flighty Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart). Years in the service of Mr. Scrooge have taught him to always keep on his toes and never push the envelope. Because Scrooge is the sort of man who invests his money in such eminent institutions as the local prisons.

For him, charity is, again, humbug. Altruism is all a put-on to make people feel good and make the world out to be a nicer play than it is. Of course, he would never tell you that. The only way to get at this conclusion is by the most roundabout manner.

It’s true this version of A Christmas Carol works in swift, impressionistic strokes of the past. Before we know it, Scrooge has awoken at night and begins his fateful journey. The narrative zips along telling his story through the visitations of Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carol) and the three Christmas spirits. First, he’s being fetched from school by his ebullient little sister for Christmas away from his boarding school.

Then, he’s back at the old warehouse where he worked for the generous soul Fezziwig and first met his curmudgeonly partner Marley. The church chapel is full of the merry intonations of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” not to mention a few furtive slides on the ice by Fred and his lovely fiancee. Of course, there is the final vision as well featuring a world with Tiny Tim (the marker of wide-eyed innocence) dead and gone.

Because it never attempts to go into the gothic depths of despair (nor does it have ample time), there is not the same rapturous payoff, but then again it manages to be quite cheery from beginning to end. Cratchit loses his job only to go home to his family, arms stacked high with food and happy as ever. Why he even levels a snowball at his good master on accident, resulting in his dismissal.

Promoted from his minor spot, Scrooge’s nephew adds dollops of his own charm to the mix supplying a few good slides across the icy streets. All parties involved contribute to the holiday cheerfulness such that even Scrooge seems unable to douse the gaiety, although there is hardly enough screentime for him to manage the task.

When I was in middle school, I once saw the eminent Hal Landon Jr. in his own stage interpretation of Scrooge, his most famous feat being his somersault on the bed to put on his hat. Meanwhile, Alistair Sim manages to be giddy with delirious delight as the utter despair of Christmas Yet to Come is stripped away from him fortuitously. Upon hearing Lionel Barrymore was meant to star and performed the role countless times on the radio, I am even more curious to hear him. Thanks be we have Mr. Potter.

Reginald Owen is a sterling Scrooge in his own right, even a yuletide archetype of the old crusty miser. Though a respectable performance, it’s no doubt overshadowed by Sim’s, among others, for the simple fact it feels conventional. There’s little wrong with this and the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol is nothing if not sentimental and streamlined for annual holiday viewing with the whole family. There’s time yet for other entries to sink into the depths of woe in order to reach the zenith of Christmas cheer. The final word is to not live a humbug life. Christmas is meant for so much more. Where jaded cynicism is replaced with radical generosity and even child-like faith.

3.5/5 Stars

Yellow Submarine (1968): The Beatles Vs. The Blue Meanies

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Like all the great fantasy stories, this one begins with “Once upon a time…” The world is Pepperland, 80,000 leagues under the sea, where people live in harmony frolicking across the hills with music wafting through the air.

But there must be villains and there are no cartoonish baddies more nefarious and reviled than the Blue Meanies. They come from the outskirts of Pepperland with an arsenal of dastardly weapons at their disposal, among them Projectile Gloves, Three-Headed Hounds, and Anti-Music Fishbowls.

Soon the melodious world is overrun by their chaotic cacophony of blueness. One can only guess what they would have thought of the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf. But as this is a Beatles adventure, the intrepid Young Fred (with graying hair) escapes on the Yellow Submarine as the refrains of Ringo’s iconic tune overtake the screen. It’s our first sense that this is a picture about the Fab Four. Beatlemania, as a zeitgeist of screeching girls, might have cooled but their music and personas still made them rock royalty of the late 60s.

To return now, functions as an all-expense paid nostalgia trip because Yellow Submarine as an animated movie is something I knew from a VHS that my dad brought home one day from work. I had no idea what LSD or an acid trip was, much less acid. Consequently, my 6th-grade school report on the Beatles was entirely lacking this information too. More so, I distinctly remember presenting about their music and how these lads from Liverpool were able to captivate the world. Because their music had always resonated with me from an early age.

Up to this point, the movie was the most whimsically inventive exploration in animation I had ever seen. Without fully comprehending the psychedelic overtones, I was taken with the utter fanciful nature of it all. The dividing line is thin between a drug trip and a childlike imagination simply accepting all things as fact. There need not be any deliberate explanation.

Collages of song and image become second nature. Eleanor Rigby playing over snippets of footage with little rhyme or reason — the submarine motors along — it’s penny-plain as the Brits might say (Not to be confused with Penny Lane). Meanwhile, the cartoonish anatomy of the figures is outrageous in not only their mechanics but general proportions. The world they reside in is even screwier.

Eventually, the yellow submarine follows Ringo home and Fred leaps from its hull ranting incessantly, barely cognizant, about explosions and BLUE MEANIES. So we go from Pepperland to an equally trippy mansion the Beatles reside in followed by a labyrinthian sea filled with the most curious creatures imaginable. It never stops with the wonkiest bits of invention. As a child it is brilliant. As an adult, it’s a bit bewildering.

But George, always the calming force, reassures with his ever available mantra, “It’s All in The Mind.” As they get a move on, the boys strengthen their camaraderie underwater with “All Together Now” one of the best new additions to the soundtrack. There’s a liberal amount of grace provided, as the plotline seems to evolve out of the songs. For instance, the ensuing “Sea of Time” makes an obligatory rendition of “When I’m 64” all but imperative.

Then, the “Sea of Science” births the organ-propelled new-age rhapsody of “Only a Northern Song.” Even an early Rubber Soul track like “Nowhere Man fits in a pinch to obliquely describe the rhyming, rolly polly alien furball Jeremy, going by any number of names (Jeremy, Hillary, Who?). The Sea of Holes (a nod to “A Day in the Life”) gets us closer to Pepperland and finds Ringo picking up a souvenir from their adventure (I’ve got a hole in me pocket). Really you could choose any of these tie-dyed realities as emblematic of the entire experience but for my money, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is the film at its height of kaleidoscope psychedelia.

When we finally do return to the monotone Pepperland from The Sea of Green, the juxtaposition is stark. We see to what extent the Blue Meanies repression of song has drained the landscape. Without any musical expression, all color has gone out of life quite literally, and it’s the lad’s job to put it back where it belongs.

They don disguises, casting them as the spitting image of the members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, currently encased in a giant fishbowl. Not for long. It is this final assault that somehow captures the magic of all the great adventure stories childhood’s have thrived on. The boys go into the heart of the enemy territory only to come prepared for a showdown and take back what is theirs. The only difference is their weaponry is a killer soundtrack to bring the Meanies to their knees.

It really is a tour de force in the final stretch stacking tracks like “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “With a Little Help from Friends,” “All You Need is Love,” and “Hey Bulldog” one after another. It’s an agreeable onslaught of tunes exploding over the screen and revitalizing the world, flushing Pepperland with a cornucopia of colors as one might expect.

We reached the apex of the concept album, paying heavy dividends in this animated film with a world loaded up on background whimsy and filled out by content from the Beatles’ hit records. Much to the Meanies chagrin, the hills are alive (with the sound of music) and in battle, two pairs of Beatles are better than one. Three pairs really.

Because we hardly realize till the very end but the Beatles — John, Paul, George, and Ringo in human flesh — barely appear. It comes with a minute-long cameo tacked on for good measure. In other words, they didn’t actually voice their cartoon selves. As a kid, I didn’t care and now it doesn’t make much difference to me either. Because we still have the music exerting its presence over the story. As is, their moment of screen time is a final capstone on a doozy of a film.

Lifelong Beatles enthusiasts, lapsing hippies, and kids with fledgling imaginations can all wholeheartedly join in on the communal Yellow Submarine experience. Yes, the title song is the most overplayed of all the Beatles canon but who cares? This movie is ceaselessly entertaining with bad puns to boot. If quotability is any indication, this might be one of the most seminal movies of my childhood.

4/5 Stars

Beau Geste (1939): Brotherly Love in The French Legion

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“The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon…but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars, and endures like the word of the prophet.” ~ Arabian Proverb

No matter what Joseph Von Sternberg thought of such a proclamation, we can concede his Morrocco was a film concerned with the former. Von Sternberg’s dalliances with Marlene Dietrich behind the scenes and then Dietrich and Cooper in front of the camera are a living testament.

Beau Geste stakes its claim early to being a film of undying brotherly love. It brings to mind the words of scholar and author C.S. Lewis when talking about philia as a “side by side, shoulder to shoulder” appreciative love. It comes not by looking at each other but having a vision of something in front of us.

“Every step of the common journey tests his metal; and the tests are tests we fully understand because we are undergoing them ourselves. Hence, as rings true time after time, our reliance, our respect and our admiration blossom into an Appreciative love of a singularly robust and well-informed kind.”

I think this is a perfect illustration to begin to understand why Beau Geste is an initially compelling hero’s journey because it relies on a joint adventure to bring out expressions of deep-rooted love.

Admittedly, William A Wellman’s film is a close remake of the 1926 silent Ronald Colman vehicle. One element this film borrows from its predecessor are intertitles, and they’re too many of them for a talking picture.

But soon enough a cold open places us within the ranks of some French Legionnaires who come upon a fortress only to find the stronghold littered with the bodies of their comrades propped up against the walls. Something dreadful must have happened to them. For now, we get no more explanation as the story quickly fades back into the past, 15 years prior.

There we meet five children, three of them named Geste, one of them named Isobel, and the fifth a bespectacled killjoy named Augustus. You see, the others are still enraptured with adolescent imaginations that find them gallivanting around on the most glorious adventures as soldiers or possibly members of King Arthur’s court.

Their exploits are to be remembered with a Viking’s funeral with a dog lying at their feet. The beauty of their temperaments is the fact they hold on to a bit of their youthful exuberance when they grow into young men.

It always is a bit of a start when you jump from child actors to their corresponding adult selves. In the picture, I couldn’t quite make the jump seamlessly but no matter. All I know is I do have an appreciation for our leads — that is the three Geste brothers. They really are rather like the three Musketeers with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston making a jocund company.

Also, on a side note, this is too perturbing for me not to mention. I double-checked records multiple times and our three stars were born in 1901, 1907, and 1918 respectively. I’m still trying to figure out why Robert Preston hardly looks any younger than his costars or at least Milland. Maybe it’s his mustache. At any rate, age differences aside, the chemistry is present.

What is not present is the priceless jewel “The Blue Water” that was stolen one evening from the home of their adopted aunt Lady Patricia. The same evening Beau runs off to the Foreign Legion followed soon thereafter by Digby (Preston) and finally John (Milland) who gives one parting embrace to Isobel (Susan Hayward) before leaving on the grand adventure. Hayward is exquisitely beautiful and though her ingenue role is in no way groundbreaking, we have the solace of many meaty performances to come.

The film’s true standout is Brian Donlevy as an unscrupulous tyrant in charge of new recruits. He eventually finds himself commanding the entire outpost with the whole outfit threatening insubordination. His hunger for power verges on the deranged.

My expectations were more of the rip-roaring adventure variety but as the previous commander’s remarks on his deathbed, “Soldiers die as much from fevers as they do battles.” Meanwhile, Digby is unceremoniously pulled away from his brothers on a work detail and subsequently, misses out on most of the final act.

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I would say wholeheartedly the film is salvaged in its last push as we are granted the spectacle we have been waiting for as the remaining men hold down the fort against incoming marauders. It makes one nearly cry out “Remember The Alamo!” The sentiment is there anyway.

It seems a horrible thing to say, but Cooper affected me more when he was on the verge of death than when he was alive. The all but wordless finale plays particularly cryptically as Digby sneaks around the compound to carry out his oldest brother’s wishes.

I must admit to dismissing Beau Geste‘s storytelling prematurely as it evoked greater complexities than I would have expected. The mechanisms of the opening and overlapping moments are more intricate than I might have given them credit for. The mysterious words spoken once upon a time, while Beau was hiding in the suit of armor, come to fruition as do the opening moments, neatly folding back into the tale.

The reunion of John with Isobel and his Aunt arrives in the nick of time to satiate audience wish-fulfillment. It almost elevates the film wholeheartedly, but the pacing and where the story chooses to focus its efforts feel scattered. Had they come together more succinctly we might be hailing Beau Geste one of the great actioners.

While Gary Cooper in a foreign legion kepi is nonetheless iconic, I am apt to remember him more so for Morocco (even if that picture belonged to Dietrich). Although if one is sentimental enough to forgive the faults, it’s painless enough to say Beau Geste belongs to three devoted brothers. Coop, Milland, and Preston maintain a spirited solidarity throughout.

3.5/5 Stars

Bigger Than Life (1956): Nicholas Ray and George Mason Fit The Bill

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James Mason gleaned the idea for Bigger Than Life from a contemporary article featured in The New Yorker by a medical writer named Berton Roueché. He detailed the side effects of the drug cortisone featured in real-life horror stories.

The title is certainly far from a misnomer and James Mason gives a performance to fill up the expanses of the screen bursting off it with furious abandon in all sorts of unwonted ways.

If my memory serves me correctly, there’s a shot at the entrance of the school where he’s being dropped off by his wife (Barbara Rush) who demurs that he’s always been 10 feet tall to her. The shot following has to be about the lowest angle conceivable with Mason positively towering over us until he walks forward and things become normalized.

It’s almost playful and still a disconcerting manipulation of the typical visual field. It’s indicative of much of the film. On the top layer, it’s the portrait of 1950s suburbia seen over and over again. There’s even an inadvertent connection to the quintessential nuclear family thanks to a pint-sized cameo from Jerry Mathers. But there’s also something pernicious gnawing away at our protagonist.

The film readily brings back the palette of Rebel Without a Cause we know and love, using the up-and-coming widescreen Cinemascope format, typifying the luscious productions of its era.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is a school teacher, one of those shining beacons of pedagogy and some things certainly have not changed. For such a noble profession, he can’t claim to be affluent. In fact, he’s moonlighting a couple nights a week in a cabbie service to make a bit more money. His wife Lou has a sneaking suspicion he might be cheating but how could he? He’s an utter angel.

His relationship with his best friend is borne in an introductory shot. Wally is played by none other than Walter Matthau. If that’s not enough, we meet him in a school corridor with a catcher’s mask strapped over his head and baseball gear filling up his hands. It’s a fairly slight part but as Matthau had a lengthy pedigree ahead of him, it’s a satisfying morsel to start.

Meanwhile, Barbara Rush gets few laurels as an actress, but she works handily as the loving spouse who Ed returns home to every evening. It feels strangely ironic because I almost unconsciously traced the line between Magnificent Obsession. It lies in their deep abiding roots in medical melodrama.  The first features Rush as a grown daughter and now she has progressed to a maternal figure, but the trauma remains constant.

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Because, as it turns out, Avery is a fairly sick man with the clock ticking away on his life. Thank goodness there’s a miracle drug, “Cortisone,” which while still widely unknown has been used with some success on such cases as his. At first, the unassuming pills seem to be doing the trick.

Riding a generous streak, he takes his wife out to a dress shop to buy her the finest things and then gets his son a shiny new bicycle. James Mason is a riot in the store leaving his family speechless. He’s walking on cloud nine. Positively the picture of good health and yet every bit of heightened euphoria is a hint of something far more ruinous working underneath the surface.

Because the changes are no longer comical or imperceptible for that matter. It comes to tossing the football in the living room chiding his son’s lack of ability and resolve. There are unwarranted mood swings to follow and the broken shards of a mirror blatantly suggest what is to come.

Back to school night is highlighted by an uncharacteristic rant about the woes of childhood and the claptrap of modern education, which has parents in a huff. It’s the most recent sign of coming attractions. Megalomania begins to overtake him with ensuing ravings about new missions and leaving matrimonial shackles behind with increasingly radicalized rhetoric injected with delusions of grandeur.

Now his only resolve is to rear his son in the pursuit of self-efficacy as he begins to enact a dictatorial behavior over all his domain, berating a wayward milkman, turning an uninterested eye on food, sleep, feelings, or anything else that might get in his way. To get psychological, he blatantly disregards Maslow’s hierarchy of needs leaping straight to the pinnacle.

Meanwhile, his wife is scared stiff. Worried for her husband’s well-being as much as she is for her boy. And yet, if it gets around about mental trouble in the family, there will be no reprieve and so she tries to weather the storm. It becomes a suburban horror tiptoeing along an impossibly sickening tightrope. You couldn’t contrive something more calamitous if you tried.

Would you cope living with an utter tyrant if it meant your spouse and father could go on living? If pain was the only issue, then the answer seems ridiculously simple, but sometimes those conundrums are the most devastating to crack. In fact, it makes me sick in the stomach watching the mental breakdown exacerbate.

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Overwhelmed by his psychosis, Ed begins spouting off scripture, one moment contemptuously, the next clearly intent on following Abraham’s lead by sacrificing his son without a second thought, twisting the words into another perverse commitment. He states his sentiments quite bluntly in one sequence as his wife hopelessly pleads in favor of compassion, “God was wrong.”

Turgid melodramas grow tiresome by the minute, and yet that fails to be the case when a film has far more to offer us whether it be artistry, irony, or social commentary. Equally compelling is a stirring dramatic situation at the core of Bigger Than Life.

Like the best films of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray is able to pull off the histrionics of such a derided mode of filmmaking and allow it to remain enduringly interesting — even resonant today — to the extent possible. Far from wearing it thin, the passage of time makes it seem more horrifying by the hour.

However, as comes with the territory of such ludicrous dramaturgy, it easily becomes a hit or miss proposition. It will go too far for some and for others just far enough to make it compelling. I think I fall in the latter category because this is not just a sitcom episode. It surpasses those rhythms for something more substantial.

In its final moments, Bigger Than Life morphs into a frenzied Hitchcock thriller in a weird, insane way as we watch a banister snap like matchwood in the midst of chaos and a deranged man is caught in a frantic confrontation with his best friend.

And as inauspiciously as it began, it comes to an end like the lingering remnants of a bad dream, resolved and forgotten just as quickly. The status quo falls back into place in the culminating shot and wife and son reaffirm faith in their family unit, cradled in the loving arms of the man of the house.

James Mason is generally remembered as a suave villain, but he proves his merits equally so as a family man gone off the rails. His performance seamlessly hits all these beats that are simultaneously heightened, while still ringing with some note of inner truth. He is a tragic hero of the post-war, suburban age.

All of a sudden, evil comes not from within man himself but from outside stimuli. Though one could easily infer that such behavior indicates the perversity lying dormant, just waiting to be unleashed. It simply takes certain chemical triggers to send him hurtling back toward his darkest inclinations. Regardless, it’s a terrifying portrait of instability in technicolor. Often real-world nightmares are the worst of all.

4.5/5 Stars