Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and they were without form or void.” This not only the beginning of the book of Genesis and the creation story but also the film Creature from the Black Lagoon. If this sounds like a curious inclusion, it fits the way the story is being established.

What’s immediately evident is that this has to be one of the most geological austere creation stories; it’s a bit like watching a nature newsreel, which folds nicely into the ethos of the movie.

We get our first sense of potential terror when a South American scientist excavates the skeletal hand of some great beast. It intrigues him, and he’s not the only one. Soon he’s reintroduced to some old comrades, who share his life ambition to better understand the world around them and under the sea through scientific means. They are ichthyologists.

It’s here we meet Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) for the first time, perfectly matched in both their work and romantic lives. The movie is quick to set the parameters of the story itself and how it chooses to utilize its greatest asset: the creature. In conservative fashion, The Creature from The Black Lagoon remains in the shadows initially with only two lingering shots of its webbed claw early on.

Director Jack Arnold asserted the movie’s whole premise “plays upon a basic fear that people have about what might be lurking below the surface of any body of water. You know the feeling when you are swimming and something brushes your legs down there – it scares the hell out of you if you don’t know what it is. It’s the fear of the unknown. I decided to exploit this fear as much as possible.”

In this regard, it’s an obvious precursor to what Steven Speilberg was looking to accomplish with Jaws, and there’s little doubt he was aware of this Universal production. How could he not be?

Meanwhile, back at the aquarium run by the publicity-minded Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), they have further discussions about the implications of the discovery charting how even their recent studies of lungfish bridge the gap between the fish and the land animal — one of a thousand ways nature tried to get life out of the sea and onto the land.

While it’s true that discussion of the Devonian age and the kamongo (lung fish) might be a giant leap to the Gil-Man, you can at least appreciate the film for expounding on some kind of backstory — a scaffold for the rest of the film to build its credibility off of. Because only then can this great horror of the deep come in and enter into some semblance of our own present reality.

Soon they head off on their expedition set to embark for the Amazon, except it’s not presented in any way we’ve seen before; it’s an ecosystem of monstrosity and we are continually conditioned to understand how such a being could exist. Everything in this jungle is bred to be killers.

Blending a bit of Heart of Darkness and The African Queen on a budget, their Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva), guides them to the black lagoon — the paradise lost — though no one has ever come back to talk about it. Each has their own way of coping. Carlson is generally a monotone albeit principled lead agile with a scuba tank and spear gun. By his side, Adams always has a constant congeniality — there’s a brightness in her eyes making her heroines alive from the inside out.

But she’s also a point of contention between David and Mark, who both hold a claim to her. It’s true Mark is a testy even maniacal ringleader, who garners a bit of a Captain Ahab complex in pursuit of the creature. The details and dialogue are not always polished, but there’s an agreeable atmosphere to the picture as it verges and willfully plunges into the depths of its own camp.

And yet even as it begins to cull the dark unknown depths, not only is there a forum provided for extensive underwater sequences, something curious begins to happen. In some way, we are put into the headspace of the creature. Yes, he has violent tendencies as the scientists look to track him down, and he becomes bolder, even coming aboard their steamer.

But as it progresses, The Creature from the Black Lagoon becomes a kind of underwater King Kong as they try to capture him and bring their findings back to civilization even as he pursues the one thing that can provide him some semblance of love. It cannot bode well…Because even as they drug the water and reel in the creature for good, there is this underlying sense of unease. Sure enough, he is not meant to be held in bondage, and he redoubles his efforts to impede them from leaving the lagoon. Suddenly, he feels less like a mindless animal and evolves more and more into a monstrosity with a mind of his own.

In fact, as the crew pursues this quest for the creature, it winds up saying as much if not more about the state of mankind. Suddenly The Creature from The Black Lagoon isn’t so black…perhaps it’s the people who drive him to such outbursts of violence etc. It’s a weirdly sensitive perspective to come out of a monster movie with.

Julie Adams may have summed it up best when she noted, “There always is that feeling of compassion for the monster. I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that long to be loved and think they really can’t ever be loved. It strikes a chord within us.”

Whether it’s a stretch or not, we too are that creature, unknowable and unlovable on so many accounts, but still searching tirelessly for affection. It starts sounding less like an amphibious King Kong, and more like Frankenstein’s monster — a super creature missing the most important building block of life: reciprocated love. Perhaps they are one and the same.

3.5/5 Stars

It Came from Outer Space (1953)

It Came From Outer Space looks to check all the boxes when we consider prototypical 1950s Sci-Fi. Based on a treatment by Ray Bradbury, it was shot by director Jack Arnold in black and white to utilize 3D. These are only some of the trappings it offers up in line with much of what you would expect from the era.

Rather than be presumptuous, let’s take a brief moment to set the scene. It’s a basic premise. John Putnam (Richard Carlson) is an amateur astronomer with a telescope set up outside his house, and he’s soon-to-be-wed to the lovely local schoolteacher (the always alluring Barbara Rush).

He’s intrigued by a meteorite they watch dive toward the earth’s surface nearby. The next morning they’re at the crash site ready to explore the giant crater. Except, as he soon finds out, the impact wasn’t caused by a rock but by a spaceship. He catches a glimpse of it before it sinks back into the avalanche.

However, with modern man, eyewitnesses are important as is maintaining the status quo. So when Putnam sounds the alarm and sends shockwaves through the small local community, there’s a lot of skepticism and shaking of heads. After all, it’s one man trying to get people to believe him with the help of his girlfriend. There’s the publicity angle with the press looking for some juicy tidbits and even a man of science lets him down, finding his assertions highly improbable.

And yet they do exist. The alien lifeforms start taking on the likenesses of people around town but not as parasites. Their friends are kept alive, albeit hidden away, to keep hysteria from setting in. Because this is an infiltration that initially feels akin to the Invasion of The Body-Snatchers.

The local sheriff (Charles Drake) is initially cynical about their existence, and when he’s finally forced to accept the facts, he’s not going to take it lying down. He cannot trust that these creatures are harmless, simply trying to get back to their home planet without mishap or international incident.

To be fair, it’s a difficult pill to swallow given our own diet of Sci-Fi and monster movies. Surely this isn’t how they are supposed to work? Because to its credit, producer William Alland and Jack Arnold’s picture suggests so many of these long-held tropes of 50s Sci-Fi movies only to give us a surprisingly lucid alternative.

With the very roots of his story, Bradbury has struck out on a rather groundbreaking path. It’s not about hostile space invaders simply vaporizing and terrorizing Middle America, though this does appear to happen. Nor is it a straightforward paranoia tale made as an echo chamber to put a voice to the latent anxieties of the McCarthy Era.

What becomes evident is a more universal message about humanity. When we fear, when we cannot comprehend something, we have a tendency to lash out. We use science or conspiracy, jokes, and gossip to discredit and then insulate ourselves — maintaining a certain level of comfortability. Because if we really knew what was going on — the sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs telling us all is not right — we would react in kind.

In some sense, the move posits, with all the obligatory space thrills included — we need not fear extra-terrestrials from outer space. What we should be wary of is the evil and violence inside ourselves — it’s these tendencies to see the worst in others and to suspect they are out to harm us. It settles for a worldview of enmity and malevolence over benevolence. When, in fact, the man from another planet is far more likely to be our neighbor than our foe.

Are these words too high-minded for such a tiny Sci-Fi flick? Perhaps. Is it easy to scoff at the special effects and liberal amounts of theremin music? Certainly. Is it strange seeing “The Professor,” Gilligan’s Island’s Russell Johnson, inhabited by an alien life form? Without a doubt.

But do yourself a favor and enjoy what it has to offer, then take a brief moment to consider what the film manages in its meager allotment of time. It’s not going to change the world; it’s not some great piece of cinema, but somewhere along the spectrum, it’s a classic in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars

Masculin Feminin (1966): The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola

“Times had changed. It was the age of James Bond and Vietnam.”

The film opens with a casual conversation between two young people: the young man, Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud), bugs the girl, Madeleine (Chantal Goya), sitting across the way. Then, this conversation between young people in a cafe gets rudely interrupted by a marital spat that ends in a gunshot. Surely these are Godard’s proclivities at work.

One could say form follows function. Masculin Feminin is another reminder of how literary his cinema is. We often think of his films for their visual aesthetic thanks to the likes of Raoul Coutard (or Willy Kurant here). There’s no denying this, but they are always so pregnant with ideas and thoughts, some fully formed others feel like they were scribbled out on a notepad (because they were). It’s a task to be inundated with it all as he willfully challenges any level of perspicuity.

However, whether you venerate or loathe Godard, his cinema is a tapestry woven together from all his influences. It feels like dialectical cinema where everything is a symposium of love, arts, and politics as young people converse with explosive intertitles blasting away between scenes. But that doesn’t mean everything is a logical progression. Godard gives himself license to follow every passing whim.

Other times it’s uncomfortably direct. Leaud as his avatar starts interrogating Madeleine as she powders her face, but he gets away with it, since he’s always idealistic and a bit of a romantic. He asks her, “What’s the center of the world?” When pressed, he thinks it’s “Love” and she would have said “Me.”

Eventually, he spends more time with her and gets to know her roommates too, and he finds a new job polling the public. Leaud “polls” Ms. 19 giving her a line of probing, deeply personal questions. Later, he has a whole conversation about mashed potatoes and a father discovering how the earth orbits around the sun.

Godard is always in conversation with the films that inform him, but with Masculin Feminin we see a much broader acknowledgment and exploration of the contemporary culture. Madeleine’s meteoric rise as a Ye-Ye singer finds her on the charts in Japan only surpassed by The Beatles, Frances Gall, and Bob Dylan. Not bad!

That’s also not to say Godard gives up being in dialogue with films as well, including his own, which had become part of the cultural conversation in their own right.  Bridgitte  Bardot (from Contempt) shows up receiving notes from her director. Madeleine playfully chastises her beau, “You’re not Pierro Le Fou. He stole cars for his woman!”

Later, they sit in a darkened theater together watching a perturbing arthouse movie:

“We went to the movies often. The screen would light up, and we’d feel a thrill. But Madeline and I were usually disappointed. But Madeline and I were usually disappointed. The images were dated and jumpy. Marilyn Monroe had aged badly. We felt sad. It wasn’t the movie of our dreams. It wasn’t the total film we carried inside ourselves. That film we would have liked to make, or more secretly, no doubt, the film we wanted to live.”

If this doesn’t sum up the aspirations of the youth in front of the camera staring up at the screen within the screen, it must hold true for the young batch of filmmakers who Godard himself came up with. It’s a perplexing bit of dialogue and one of the most apparently self-reflexive and personal annotations within the entire picture.

As is, all of Godard’s male heroes and stand-ins feel dense although Leaud is always miraculously able to pull off some boyish prank or a bit of mischief and still maintain some semblance of relatable humanity.

Otherwise, how could girls ever put up with these guys much less love them? All the young women are pestered to no end and rendered endearing for all they must endure. I think of Ms. 19 and Elisabeth (Marlene Joubert) in particular. We pity them.

What do we do with the totality of this picture? From experience, you usually run into issues when you try and find the narrative arc or a conventional form to follow. Because Godard’s films boast so much in ideas, asides, and digressions. There’s so much to be parsed through and digested.

It’s easier to follow impressions, a train of thought here, or a standalone scene there that left some sort of tangible impact. In the social tumult and the moral morass of the 1960s, it’s almost as if within the collage of the film, we’ll find some substantive meaning. Then, again maybe not.

Leaud walks down the street with a girl and pops into a cafe for a moment only to come back out. He continues to walk and says, “Kill a man and you’re a murderer. Kill thousands and you’re a conqueror. Kill everyone and you’re a God.”

She responds, “I don’t believe in God.” Frankly, I don’t blame her, and if that’s the world’s conception of who God is, I wouldn’t want that God either. Still, we all try and answer existential questions with something, be it politics, pop songs, or fleeting teenage romance.

I read Godard’s film was restricted to adult viewers, but he probably thought he was doing a public service announcement for the youth generations in his own individual attempt to put a voice to the times. Whatever your thoughts on Godard or Coca Cola and Marx, alongside British Swinging London time capsules, Masculin Feminin helps capture this particular moment of ’60s European culture in a bottle.

It feels increasingly difficult to reconcile all the warring forces fighting for primacy and as a young person just trying to find love and make sense of one’s life, it’s never easy. We have more questions than answers. However imperfectly, Masculin Feminin synthesizes some aspects of this universal phenomenon, one that’s not totally restricted by time. We can all relate to this idea as long as we were young once.

4/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Jean-Luc Godard on September 13, 2022.

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

Il Tetto (1956)

A lot of memorable films are instigated with a jubilant wedding. A couple takes a photo out in front of the church and ride off triumphantly, leaving friends and relations in their wake. Like most of its brethren, Il Tetto falls back to earth with a more sobering reality.

The wife takes the bus with her new husband back to their hometown. It’s a version of The Graduate after the euphoria has burnt off, and they have to make sense of the future. Now they must come to terms with their decisions. They must cope with a father-in-law who won’t speak to them. It’s not even about unyielding conflict. They don’t get a chance to mollify him. The chance never comes so they go back from whence they came.

They seem fairly well-adjusted as a couple in spite of their youth. Although they are young, without many prospects or money to speak of, the bond between them is undeniable. Because it’s the story of many people, to get married and then become inundated by poverty.

However, these newlyweds are looking to make a life together built on the foundations of the war years with a youthful optimism for future prosperity. For the time being, they must stay crowded in the family house until they can get a leg up and a place of their own.

But anyone who loves their family to death (and sometimes wants to strangle them), knows this cannot last. Between Natale’s elderly parents and little kids bustling around, the sister-in-law Giovanna is about to have a baby and her agitated husband Cesare is always complaining about the lights being left on. He’s not particularly simpatico about the new arrangements. It reaches a tipping point when he and Natale grow chippy and discontented.

It’s sooner than expected, but they realize they need to go out on their own and find a place. The barriers up against them are obvious. They need the funds in order to swing it, and it’s still an issue finding quality housing in the city with buildings coming down as much as they’re going up.

Husband and wife make a pact to split up so they can try and find leads. Natale puts his fledgling skills to use getting a job at a construction site as Luisa calls upon her friend to get work as a housemaid.

This isn’t quite Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, but the young bricklayer mobilizes all his work buddies and scrounges around for all the money he can get for materials and labor. What’s more, they’re tasked with putting up a livable structure in the course of one evening. It feels like an act of desperation, an unsurmountable task, but he seemingly has no other choice.

Like an utter numbskull, it didn’t strike me what the core resonance of the title was until the movie was over. I was under the impression that there would be some scene on the roof — that it was a metaphor for their existence — of getting away together as a couple and starting their new life. I’ve listened to too much of The Drifters and vividly recalled a rooftop moment in A Special Day.

But De Sica makes this story even more elemental. This is about the roof over their heads — a home to call their own — and the right to a certain amount of dignity to work and raise a family.

He turns such a premise into a kind of neorealist thriller as the young husband races to literally put that roof over their heads before the local police can reach the premises and condemn them for whatever infractions. It’s a tense round of nailbiting in the final minutes as they race against time. We know what might happen; we’ve seen it already, and now it’s all up to the fates.

Il Tetto is not talked about with the most high-profile De Sica dramas nor, does it have the warm buoyancy of his later comedies as he came upon a new facet of his career.  But even as the neorealist movement was waning and beget future progeny like the French New Wave and other movements, there’s little denying the impact of this kind of cinema championed by the likes of Rosselini, Visconti, and De Sica.

It’s taken a more personal note for me because as I’m writing this, I’m in the process of moving. A lease was terminated, I was forced to rush around trying to find a place of my own, and then there’s the first-world problem of cleaning out all your excess junk.

My situation is different; it’s privileged compared to what this couple have to endure. If anything, it’s a reminder for me to stop my griping. It could be worse. Still, more so, I’m reminded we all have these same urges: for shelter and a place we can live in peace. I empathized with these folks even more than I was expecting.

4/5 Stars

The Mouse That Roared (1959)

There’s something illuminating about getting a movie from our neighbors across the pond that offers a winking look at American society. The movie takes its title quite literally, scaring off the Columbia lady with a critter who subsequently carries away the animated title sequence. Because the U.S. might be the prototypical lion, but Grand Fenwick is the mouse that roared.

The minuscule duchy of Fenwick — a measly nation if there ever was one — remains stagnated in the medieval ages, economically and otherwise. Their major exports are wine, particularly popular on the West coast, though competition in the form of copycat businesses proves steep competition.

Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the Fenwick leaders resolve to declare war on America. It’s really all part of their contingency plan expecting that their quick and inevitable defeat will lead to American rehabilitation and, thus, newfound prosperity for their little principality. They no doubt are well aware of the Marshall Plan and the U.S.’s undying interest in any floundering nation, they can look to capitalize on. Better us swoop in than have the Soviets socialize them, right?

Regardless, all this poppycock and tomfoolery is made even more palatable thanks to the talents of Peter Sellers. He hasn’t reached Clousseau status nor the apex of his stardom in the 1960s, but he would be an international icon soon enough. For now, we get to sit back and witness him in dialogue with himself. First as the Machiavellian prime minister Mountjoy, then the Queen Victoria knockoff, Duchess Gloriana, and finally, the ultimate Sellers hero, Tully Bascomb.

Because it is this meek and unassuming game warden, who is called upon to lead the charge across the sea onto enemy territory. Armed with their bows & arrows, chainmail, and Fenwickian pluck, their force, 20 men strong, sets off. I mention Bascomb as the prototypical Sellers hero because he’s such a small character, and yet since he is lacking in much, it works impeccably well with the utter outrageousness of the comedy blowing up around him.

Before Monty Python and even before Dr. Strangelove, there was The Mouse That Roared, and not simply due to the trio of roles carried by Sellers. Like its future scion, it takes no umbrage about trampling over Medieval iconography in all its antiquity and finding wells of humor therein. It’s also an atomic bomb-conscious comedy. Surely, you could say almost all comedies of the 50s and 60s were informed by this reality — this pervasive fear — but Mouse takes these themes to heart.

For what generally feels like a humble picture, the moving parts are rather extraordinary. Beyond Sellers, we have director Jack Arnold remembered mostly for his Sci-Fi and monster movies of the 1950s. The marriage sounds less outrageous than it is (or maybe it’s just outrageous enough) because this is meant to be a farce. There are no creatures from the black lagoon or incredible shrinking men, but there is some extraterrestrial hysteria.

It plays with all the alarmist tendencies of the age when the Fenwick contingent prey on a passing truck and punctures its tires, leaving the victims thinking the nation’s being invaded by men from outer space. This streak of nuclear age anxiety with a distinct message is more than enough to wedge it into the rest of Arnold’s canon.

But we have yet to mention Jean Seberg. She’s no doubt at her most childish — she’s only 20 or 21 years old, after all — playing the peeved daughter of a famed scientist. It hardly accentuates her talents nor her playful mystique like Breathless or even Monsieur Tristesse, but it is something different. Because it’s her father’s Q Bomb, which could eat an H Bomb for breakfast, that is currently being tested and is accidentally discovered by the Fenwickians.

In a serendipitous act of lunacy, they instantly become the aggressors ready to take advantage of the situation and bring America to its knees by kidnapping some of its most fundamental assets. It’s the kind of goofy, lightweight stuff taking the edge off. Although there’s an agenda, no matter what implications it might have in the nuclear age, The Mouse That Roared is the perfectly tame goofball comedy we expect to see when we visit sitcoms of the 50s and 60s.

The fish out of water commentary about America dries up when the prisoners are carted back across the pond. Tully and his men make a triumphant return only to be met with some chagrin from the hoodwinked cabinet. They’ve mucked things up. Not only have they not surrendered, they’ve gone and taken hostages and ran off with the most dangerous superweapon in the world!

By this stage, the heart of the comedy has mostly dried up too, though there are a few passing gags relating to the hot potato bomb that wheezes and sizzles to the touch just waiting to annihilate mankind. Likewise, Tully finds himself smitten with feisty young Helen in a love affair that could be telegraphed from miles away. Ultimately, it plays the best when its intentions are made clear with the goofball inanity of it all before didacticism and treacly romance are allowed to give their final stamp of approval on the story. For what it’s worth, I’m one Yank who enjoys being invaded in such a manner as this.

3.5/5 Stars

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Otto Preminger famously combed through headshots and plucked Jean Seberg out of her Iowa hometown to be groomed as his latest star. St. Joan was far from a stunning ascension for the young starlet, but her follow-up with Preminger, Bonjour Tristesse, showcases her incandescence.

Adapted from Francoise Sagan’s novel about youth set on the French Riviera, I cannot think of a better environ to augment Seberg’s talents. Her Cecile is a carefree spirit and rather noncommital when it comes to anything like marriage, but Seberg imbues her with a poise well beyond her years.

The fact that the picture is positively cascading with ritzy, sun-soaked opulence more than suits a jaunty David Niven and the pixie-haired Seberg — they’re a father and daughter duo — who know no other existence than utter extravagance. Preminger more than matches his stars with gorgeous tones drifting from black and white to vibrant color.

They feel all but compelled to recline on the veranda to soak up the sunbeams with a cool beverage or take a refreshing dip in the water. Who can blame them?  The audience is allowed to live vicariously through all their pleasures, and it makes the interim portions of Bonjour Tristesse both light and luscious in content.

If you haven’t gotten the idea already, Preminger’s picture conjures up ample comparisons to Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief or Demy’s Bay of Angels sharing much of the same world. What happens exactly? That is and it isn’t easy to say because it’s the mood and the time spent with the characters in their environs that’s both scintillating and charming. Some characters almost evaporate between the beaches, casinos, and champagne bubbles. The most important ones give the film buoyancy and a dash of substance sprinkled in.

However, to hone on any sort of plot, it begins rather simply as a comedy of the situation with father and daughter pulling off shenanigans together. They have such a cultured camaraderie, that it’s second nature to refer to each other by their first names. Romantic dalliances are also expected, between Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) the pretty young thing Raymond traipses around with and Cecile’s latest fling, a strapping young man named Phillippe (Geoffrey Horne). He’s one out of a laundry list of past suitors. They’re contented enough with their free-flowing lifestyle.

Then, follows the auspicious day when Anne (Deborah Kerr) arrives. She’s been invited for the summer holiday as a friend of Raymond’s late wife. She’s not of their ilk with a sense of propriety that they’ve never taken much time to worry about or even consider. One can only imagine what she will think of the laissez-faire romantic lifestyles of Cecile and Raymond. The tensions in the fresh sea air from the outset.

However, we must take pause because there is also a sense of deja vu in the atmosphere. Surely Niven and Kerr have played these characters before in other movies — their dashing playboy and refined prude — this time falling in love with each other. Even Seberg with her iconic pixie cut looks utterly familiar if only due to the ubiquitous iconography of Breathless a few years later.

Whether totally conscious or not, it does feel like Bonjour Tristesse is totally in dialogue with the onscreen personas of its three stars. This feels very much like a component of Old Hollywood where stars were built around their types and somehow instead of disappearing into roles, they brought their own individual sense of authenticity and emotional truth to whatever part they played. For the best ones, it’s like each subsequent role was built on the foundation of their previous work.

Jean-Luc Godard even acknowledged, “The character played by Jean Seberg [in Breathless] was a continuation of her role in Bonjour Tristesse, I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title: “Three years later.”

In the latter half of the film, it’s the character’s youth that becomes strikingly apparent as she grows jealous of their new houseguest who has tamed her father and taken away some of her long-held freedoms in an attempt to make her a more traditional young lady.

And yet the happy-go-lucky gaiety remains up until the very brink of devastation. Otherwise, we watch with rapt interest as she goes darting after her lady oppressor like the epitome of her gamine self ready to watch her fall into the emotional trap orchestrated by her girlish ploys. Suddenly all the merriment isn’t so merry after all and it’s terrifying in its incisive cruelty. We are reminded of the selfish vindictiveness of youth. C’est la vie.

For garnering such a tepid response in its heyday, Bonjour Tristesse represents much of the allure of Old Hollywood though it rarely gets the plaudits of some of its brethren. Somehow, between Preminger and Seberg, Niven and Kerr, and sweeping Cinemascope, it’s easy for the picture to get lost in the shuffle because the four of them have innumerable other productions of note.

This one deserves at least a second chance for its mise en scene alone. Preminger actually does something with it to the point that the final moments of the movie mean something. It’s not the same film we thought we were signing up for.

It’s gorgeous, vain, at times, even superficial, but we would be remiss not to pick up on the inherent melancholy played in sharp contrast to the vibrant palette. Suddenly, it makes complete sense why their present is in black and white and only the past can remain in color.

4/5 Stars

A Patch of Blue (1965)

I hope my analogy does not get misconstrued, but A Patch of Blue plays like a sublime fairy tale. It’s set in New York, a city that often feels as much of a visual fabrication made out of magic and myth as it is a real place anchored in time and space. Here is the very same world that exists in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s or other such pictures.

Shelley Winters is at her nastiest and most acerbic as a street tramp Rose-Ann. An evil “stepmother” if you will, because she and her daughter are on a first-name basis. Aside from that, you’d hardly realize they’re kith and kin. Because you see our cinematic cinderella, Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman), is blind thanks to a violent altercation in her childhood and is now resigned to spending most of their time locked up in the shabby apartment.

Wallace Ford, bless his soul, is Ole Pal and though his heart might be in the right place, he’s not much used to the world because he spends most of his waking days home from work griping at the insufferable Rose-Ann or going out on the town to get royally plastered. 

When Selina’s not slaving away at chores, she’s stringing beads together for mere pennies. Otherwise, she’s considered useless. She’s blind after all. It’s hardly a life at all. At least, that’s what the world around her seems to suggest and any minor pleasure like an afternoon in the park feels more precious to her than gold. 

It’s in this said park where she first meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier). If we wished to describe him, you could highlight any number of salient characteristics. He’s tall, handsome, and intelligent. He works the night shift and he has a brother (Ivan Dixon) who’s training to be a doctor. He’s also black…

But Selina cannot recognize or know any of this during their first encounter. Instead, she learns about him through his actions and words. Rather than being an impediment to their connection, somehow it provides the most sincere indications of human affection. She finds him to be kind and patient in a manner she has rarely experienced.

In this first encounter, she’s dumped her precious beads all over. She can’t possibly gather them together again and so we have an effortless meet-cute. For all we know, Gordon appears at her tree, but whatever the means — fate or happenstance — the film is never the same again. The metaphor of this movie is evident even for those who’ve never seen it. The cliche that “love is blind” is made quite literal because, for young Selina, that’s what happens. She falls in love for the first time. 

Guy Green does not employ altogether flashy filmmaking notwithstanding some fitting match cuts, but this leaves ample space for his narrative focal points. There’s something undeniable blooming between Hartman and Poitier making this movie a tender slice of romance brimming with sincerity. 

Poitier empowers her in a way no one has bothered to before, and it’s an awakening of the world around her even as her sense remain attuned to everything. Though Poitier isn’t necessarily stretched beyond his limits — he’s perfectly at ease being a benevolent guide — his customary affability and charm feel infallible at this point. 

True to form, he comes back in subsequent days to check in on Selina, providing her sunglasses to cover the scars on her face. Another day he offers her a can of pineapple juice, which she takes with relish. He broadens her horizons further by traveling together on the crosswalk for pastrami at the local delicatessen and then to pick up his groceries.

To us, these seem like mundane tasks, and yet for Selina, these are such generous acts because someone has taken the time for her. And though she is mostly unawares, there is a sense that in 1965, just there being together, existing in the world, and taking part in life together, is a meaningful act of solidarity if not total rebellion against prejudicial behavior. At its most fundamental level, it courts these ongoing themes of friendship and tolerance.

 Most importantly, it is Gordon who rescues her from the pit of despair and the vengeful jowls of Rose-Ann once and for all. Remember, it is a fairy tale — Poitier acts as the fairy godmother whose job never has enough contours for us to really know what he does; he appears when he is needed most. His performance is matched by the agreeable whimsy of Jerry Goldsmith’s score dancing softly in the background. It can end no other way even as this adolescent girl’s life still hangs in the air partially unresolved. 

Although the words have been echoed many a time, it does seem like Selina comprehends Dr. King’s incomparable words in their totality. Because in her mind’s eye and in their day-to-day actions, she has no difficulty judging Gordon, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.

It’s another sentimental picture and you can rail against it, although I’m predisposed to enjoy its quiet bounties. Even compared to a more high-profile option like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there’s something unostentatious and rather attractive about this movie. It has Poitier’s sense of decency and there’s a message of tolerance, but the scale feels wonderfully mundane. So, perhaps it’s a realist fairytale. 

4/5 Stars

Nothing But a Man (1964) and Human Dignity

I know Ivan Dixon from Hogan’s Heroes and I’m hardly ashamed of that. He is a lifelong friend forged out of days poring over episodes on classic television stations. Whether he was satisfied with the work is an entirely different conversation, but I am thankful for what he brought to the ensemble in terms of humor and his reliable presence.

Then, recent viewings of Too Late Blues and A Raisin in The Sun, introduced Dixon into my life again in a renewed context. It was a new way to appreciate him even as I’ve become more aware of his prolific work behind the camera in more recent years.

However, in Nothing But a Man, he showcases a depth of character and a facet of the human experience, that frankly, was never accessible in a zany half-hour CBS comedy about American prisoners in a German Luftstalag or any of the smaller film roles he was bequeathed.

The images open with jackhammers as a gang of black section hands help lay down the railroad tracks. It’s hardly breezy work. In return for their sweat and middling conditions, they get a wage and a certain amount of freedom. In the evenings they can be found playing cards or frequenting the local beer parlors with “Heatwave” jamming away in the background. It’s lo-fi instant ambiance and Motown proves to be the perfect soundtrack for this film.

Although he’s not much of a churchgoer, Duff Anderson does show up at a local church meeting in Alabama for some food and southern hospitality. The girl dishing out the meal catches his eye. Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln) is the local teacher and the preacher’s daughter. This feels like an instant red flag. Anderson’s not exactly a moral saint, but he relishes her company.

There’s a modest kinship rapidly blooming between them. Even so, Nothing But a Man is a film that feels attentive to the thoughts and feelings of its characters spoken not simply through their words but the expressions on their faces and their actions. Dixon has such classically handsome features, and there’s something unequivocally lovely and unassuming about Abbie Lincoln’s smile. They bring the best out of each other as their romance strengthens.

However, there are other underlying issues to contend with. He has a young son, although he’s never been married before. The reverend looks at him with suspicion. He’s not the marrying kind. Even he knows it, but as a bastion of society, and a mediator between the black and white communities, Josie’s father is not welcoming of any disruption to his moral standing. It’s easy to feel for him even as the gravitational pull of empathy drags us in other directions.

Duff tells the preacher, “Us colored folks got a lotta churchgoing. It’s the white folks who need it real bad.” Of course, the irony of the words can’t be lost on us. Most if not all the white folks have their own churches to go to on Sunday, but it has no positive impact on their lives. I’m sure neither race has a total monopoly on this lukewarm reality. It’s human nature.

But there’s still another question to be answered: How did two Jewish men from up North hone in on such a resonating story of a black community, by taking New Jersey locales and fashioning them into the Deep South? It has to begin with this same kind of personal identification — some form of shared empathy — because they could not get close to the material any other way.

One thing that comes with watching films en masse is how they have the ability to inform one another. Take Pressure Points about a black psychiatrist treating a white neo-Nazi. He espouses vitriolic rhetoric about turning Blacks and Jews into the world’s scapegoats. He never uses the exact words, but it’s plain he believes them to be subhuman. I’m no expert, but it’s difficult for me to think of any group that has been more oppressed than these two.

However, this is not Stanley Kramer at work. It’s not a film about messages or social significance. Instead, we are allowed the privilege to walk alongside this man and woman, and even for a few moments become privy to their circumstances as depicted on screen.

It becomes apparent how the specter of racism dwells over every element of daily life. It cannot be conveniently compartmentalized or ignored because it always has a way of rearing its ugly head. White co-workers try and whip up “friendly” small-talk couched with subtle belittling and microaggressions. And you cannot have a quiet car ride without being accosted.

For whatever his negligible crimes against humanity might be, Duff is considered a troublemaker and standoffish. He won’t be cowed. The next stage in the systematic onslaught is bodily threats — he’s chastised mercilessly as a gas station attendant —  only to be laid off out of fear of retaliation.  And it doesn’t stop there as he’s totally blackballed and all the work propositions mysteriously dry up all around him. There is no deliverance from such a sphere of existence.

His primary problem is that he’s a proud man in an environment that is not ready to give him the respect he requires. What’s striking about Dixon’s portrayal is how it never feels combative or confrontational. That’s never his M.O., but he also will not degrade or ingratiate himself as a basic act of survival. There are some things that run deeper still, and he knows no other way than to be true to himself.

Self-proclaimed experts always talk about the problem with families is the lack of a father figure. But fathers need work and here you see the issue in its totality. It plays out throughout this movie. There’s hopelessness, then desperation, and a lashing out at all those close at hand — wives and children. However, while all this looks to be another portrait of dissolution and a man’s restlessness in a world that won’t let him be, it actually rings with a final note of hope.

I would never accuse Sidney Poitier of grandstanding, but there is a sense Dixon has the same substance as his peer, but this story feels even more mundane than the bulk of Poitier’s Hollywood work. The canvas and the drama are distilled to these very humble forms, and yet there is something powerful in these simple building blocks.

And if there is not a Hollywood happy ending, since this picture shuns everything that is expected by contemporary conventions, Duff does maintain his sense of human dignity. It’s all right there in the title. He was never asking much of others. Never looking for trouble. He just wants to be given the inalienable right to be a man.

For some, that’s easier than it is for others. Let us strive tirelessly for the day when all can claim that they really and truly are created equal. Nothing But a Man is a poignant reminder that this is still far from a reality.

I always knew Ivan Dixon was special, but I will never look at him the same way again. Abbey Lincoln also won a new fan today. I wish I had been aware of her career and her music sooner. But there’s no time like the present to rectify the situation. Let’s not live under the lie that says otherwise.

4.5/5 Stars