Ministry of Fear (1944): Nazis & Noir

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In screenwriting 101 they always say engaging movies employ ticking clocks from start to finish. Ministry of Fear takes this quite literally, opening with the tick-tock of a clock face as Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) sits in rapt attention, waiting for the bells to chime.

At first, we’re not sure where we’ve found ourselves. What’s going on? Why is he so on edge? Then, he makes his way through some stone gates and the word “asylum” is emblazoned on the front entrance. We instantly know more about him. He has a past but it seems, at least for the time being, this man has a clean slate to work with.

His first adventure upon purchasing a ticket to London is popping over to a local carnival put on by all the nice ladies of the town. But this British-set noir, directed by Fritz Lang, and based on a Graham Greene work, also begins employing a time bomb…in the form of a cake.

After an enigmatic tip from a lady psychic, Mr. Neale unwittingly acquires said confection and soon gathers he’s gotten involved in something way over his head. The MacGuffin has been brought into circulation.

It proves to be an eventful trip to London, to say the least, and not just because of the Nazis raining down bombs overheard. There’s some homegrown drama as well. As Neale starts dropping cake all over the train compartment, he subsequently welcomes in a bland bloke, only to have the mystery man run off with his dessert.

For the time being, there is nothing to do. In London he calls on a stodgy old investigator (Erskine Sandford) to back him up; he obliges only when money is waved in front of his nose. Then there’s the giggly introduction of an amiable brother and sister duo (Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond) who escaped from Austria.

Mr. Neale is led to believe their business is unwittingly being used as a front for some clandestine activities involving The Mothers of Free Nations. They always were shifty characters.

Meanwhile, Reynolds dips in and out of her accent; she probably would have been served better without it. Though she is winsome enough, I’m inclined to believe the film could have been more twisted if she was, in fact, a more duplicitous dame. Admittedly, the rogue gallery is still quite busy without suspecting her.

The imposing, austere beauty, Mrs. Belaine, leads a seance joined by the foreboding Dr. Forrester (Alan Napier) and dropped in upon by a Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea), who has a very familiar face. The good doctor holds a particularly high position in the ministry of propaganda.

The unearthly environment is textbook high contrast cinematography with visages almost incandescent while otherwise shrouded in darkness. Unfortunately, there’s a shot in the dark (no Clouseau available here) and our hero must be on the run again. We have yet another tip-off that an international conspiracy akin to Foreign Correspondent is afoot.

We are treated to a Hollywood version of a wartime Underground bomb shelter as Neale looks to evade capture with Carla. We get another visual tip on Dr. Forrester thanks to ominous swastikas projected on the wall. His newest analysis “Psychology of Nazidom” is the culprit. One gathers he might have a closer relationship with the Third Reich than he’s letting on. Unless it’s someone else…

Given these details, it’s difficult not to also consider Lang’s harrowing Hangman Also Die! which tackled the Nazi menace right from the interior. The fact that the enemy might have infiltrated and live all but undetected among us is even more frightening (though these themes are not considered in length here).

Because, like Hitchcock’s best British films, Ministry of Fear is all thriller, and its main allegiance is to entertainment rather than pure propaganda. I think the years are kinder to it for those very reasons. It does not give us a completely false sense of the piety found in the world — especially in the midst of something so troubling as WWII.

There are further bomb explosions and the involvement of Scotland Yard leading to a very familiar face turning up once more. The emblematic shot of the whole picture comes when a door is closed behind a fleeing fugitive and a shot rings out, with one solitary beam of light emanating through the bullet hole. It explains the whole scene, and what has happened, in the most dramatic way possible.

A chase up to the roof ensues, where, upon being pinned down, Neale and his gal shoot it out with the enemy, the rain pouring down in torrents overhead. It looks like dire straights if not for some fortuitous help. In literary terms, I believe the accepted phrase is a deus ex machina. Because closure, as such, is hardly arrived upon so easily, we conveniently edit through the climax to explain it away.

Instead, there is a hastily cut-together ending with one obligatory mention of a forthcoming church wedding and of course, a wedding cake…It is a glib reminder noir can often bleed into the most mundane environments.

As forced as it may feel, this happy ending leaves us with nervous laughter. Otherwise, we might still be trembling considering what might have happened. I can only imagine the reactions of a wartime audience — no matter how farfetched the plot — they were living through this very real fear.

3.5/5 Stars

The Third Man At 70

Oh, how I love The Third Man (or The 3rd Man). Regardless of how you write it, Carol Reed‘s post-war noir is one of those special films that was a case of love at first sight.  I knew some of the reasons already, but watching the film with a friend (on his first viewing) teased them out even more so. It was a nice reminder of why this film continues to enchant me and engage me on fundamental levels time after time.

Dutch Angles in Post-War Vienna

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My buddy was right. The Third Man is inherently disorienting. Visually the film presents all of its subjects from a stilted perspective. They’re always slanted, featured in crammed together close-ups, and never quite sitting square in our line of vision from the camera’s uncomfortably low angles. Whether we realize them or not, there’s no doubt the dutch angels (from “Deutch” or German) manipulate how we experience the action.

Starting with these formalistic elements, the mood is perfectly ingrained in the fundamental building blocks of the story with the crumbling city sectioned off into its uneasy alliances between the WWII victors. We have a crosshatching of districts and a melting pot of language and objectives.

Thus, when the blundering American author Holly Martins walks into the story, he, like his audience, has very little understanding of what is going on. His level of comprehension is lost in translation even as he goes around trying to get to the bottom of the scenario. Joseph Cotten does a fabulous job in the part effectively becoming our eyes and ears in the environment.

And this strong association is part of the reason I so vehemently decried Netflix’s tampering with the original film’s ambiguity. If you’re like me and Holly Martins, you’re no polyglot, aside from a few token phrases here and there. When the old man or woman in the house rattles off something, you’re lost in the unfamiliarity. You’re waiting for someone to explain it, even trusting on the good graces of others. In some regards, you are helpless.

It’s part of the way the film toys with us. You realize the whole time maybe you’ve been played and a whole level of the film’s context has flown over your head. Subtitles alleviate our ignorance but also cause us to lose out on some of the perplexity felt as a result of such a global battleground. The Third Man capitalizes on the richness of these cultural ambiguities.

The Zither & Herb Alpert

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The music is next on my list. My friend was right again. The title song’s awfully familiar and after Anton Karas got plucked off the streets of Vienna to provide the lively but strangely hollow and foreboding soundtrack, it would go onto some acclaim on the music charts (including a guitar rendition by Guy Lombardo).

The tune is one of a select few early movie themes to hit the mainstream remaining fairly recognizable even today. This is even more surprising given its inauspicious roots. My friend connected the dots later only to realize he’d heard the particularly Latin-flavored version by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass on their album !!Going Places!!  He taught me something learned new, but you learn a lot being friends with an avid record collector.

Quick Pacing

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It might be a mere generalization, but I feel like there are often complains leveled at films of yore that they languish, there’s too much talking, and they don’t boast enough action. But I think my buddy was spot on once more. The Third Man has surprisingly timely pacing (aside from the deliberate final shot).

One of the practical reasons for this might have been director Carol Reed literally being hooked on the stimulant Benzedrine to get through his hectic shooting schedule around the clock. This might be one explanation for the zip, even in the opening monologue. However, there’s also an undeniable drive to The Third Man because it’s stuffed with questions, mystery, and underlying tension.

As information begins to reveal itself, we have screeching taxi rides, reveals, harrowing meetings on Ferris wheels, and climactic chases sequences clattering through the rubble-strewn streets and labyrinthian waterworks. But the reason it grips us has to do with falling in with intuitively compelling characters. That’s as good a place as any to bring him up…

Harry Lime: Super-Villain?

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The final observation I found to be particularly interesting was my buddy’s acknowledgment that Harry Lime felt surprisingly modern, a precursor even to the current villain. I want to tease out this idea even more because I’ve been drawn to movies that layer their menace. I can think of the likes of Black Panther or Mission Impossible: Fallout as two recent examples.

However, what I mean by this is how you don’t quite know where the trouble is going to come from, who you can trust, and who will betray you. It makes for a glorious puzzle to navigate. Is Calloway someone we can give our allegiance to? He’s an awful stickler for the law without clemency.

Mr. Crabbin is an unnerving chap before we ever learn who he is and the shifty-eyed likes of the Baron, Dr. Winkel, and Popescu have far more to tell than they willingly divulge. The woman Anna (Valli), who loves Harry, is almost delusional with her unwavering love for a scoundrel. Even Cotten, our initial hero, lumbers around like a drunken idiot, thinking he has everything figured out.

And of course, there’s Mr. Harry Lime himself. The most iconic charismatic, machiavellian anti-hero. Orson Welles makes him a dashing shadowy specter, larger-than-life and theatrical. But there’s no discounting the mercilessness pulsing through him. None of these characters are straight-laced by any stretch of the imagination. They have some flaw, evil, or vice dragging them down. Lime just remains the mastermind and the poster boy of it all.

The one character who seems like a generally agreeable chap is, of course, the one who SPOLIERS gets it. Somehow it fits the times and the world. It couldn’t be any other way.

So 70 years on The Third Man still remains one of the preeminent examples of a quality thriller, pulsing with atmosphere, style, romance, and intrigue. To say they don’t quite make movies like this anymore is immaterial.

What’s truly staggering is how brilliantly Carol Reed’s film still holds up. I look forward to many more viewings to come, preferably with a friend or two. After all, they’re the ones who help me appreciate classics like these with new eyes.

Happy 70th Year to The Third Man! You’re still looking great!

I’m also proud to be a part of the Classic Movie Blog Association celebrating 10 years of existence. Here’s to many more.

Searching (2018)

Searching.pngSearching is a film promoting a certain plotting device in this social media age of ours. An Up-like introduction played through old computer memories and hard drive data is surprisingly poignant. It provides the backstory for a parent-child relationship to play out, albeit with the mechanisms of a thriller.

The opportunity to see an Asian-American family front and center in a film like this is too much to pass up. Once more, after Columbus, John Cho proves — not surprisingly — he’s more than capable of anchoring a movie with a lot of intriguing potential.

Because this is a story of a father who thinks everything is normal — aside from his wife no longer being with them. So when his daughter doesn’t message him one evening and forgets to take out the trash, he shrugs it off as the usual. But the hours continue to tick away and still no response from Margo.  He’s getting annoyed and finally very, very worried.

It reaches the point his daughter is pronounced missing, an investigator named Rosemary Vick comes on the case, and David starts seeing a side of his daughter he never knew existed — namely because in the aftermath of his wife’s death (her mother) — they have never found the time to talk about it.

Instead, like many good conservative families, all put together and everything, they keep on living life like nothing’s wrong while loneliness and different types of rancor take hold. It hits a fever pitch when his daughter Margot is simply not responding and none of her “friends” have seen her in a couple days.

A story about a disconnected father and daughter all of a sudden becomes fodder for our thriller with more heady implications. There are compelling aspects to this film beyond the taut pulses of tension stretched for all they’re worth. I won’t make any claim this is an Ozu-like examination of familial relationships — the palette is not nearly as meticulous — but it’s trying, even going so far as to tackle the aftermath of grief.

More so, Aneesh Chaganty’s movie is made for The Internet Age. We exist in a world full of “catfishing” on the internet. So much gets promoted, lied about, and falsified in this identity theft, fake news, self-promotion era that we now live in. Where we share our condolences and show our grief to gain likes and follows but it feels like there’s no true investment — no authentic concern for loved ones and others being affected.

All these elements could not be more pertinent than right now and Searching makes the point of reminding us how much of this technology has blown up during our very lifetime. In some regards, the course this story takes as far as computer advances and windows desktops are concerned are akin to my life.

There is a chill factor that has the titillating tinge of Gone Girl but unfortunately, it is not capable of paying off in the same bone-chilling manner. The final twist — because there most assuredly is one — feels too much like the conclusion to a movie trying to find the perfect bow to tie everything together. The logic is not quite right as it fits the clean contours of a screenplay more than reality and as a result, it does not feel nearly risky enough.

The underlying problem begins with the concept, because such a conceit as this, playing out over social media, video, and with the always dubious screens on screens approach, runs the risk of feeling like a gimmick. Searching does well to use its assets in the opening minutes, setting up this family and this life and dropping hints of things that don’t seem quite right.

However, it becomes a slave to its own storytelling devices which hinders the scenario instead of aiding in the resolution. Because it is never willing to break out of this perspective even once and resultingly, the narrative does feel quite limiting, even cold.

Surely, technology does this to us — we could easily make this argument — but for the sake of the story, it starts feeling stagnant and repetitive, verging into seemingly more unrealistic territory as time goes on. The gimmick becomes a weakness instead of a powerful tool for creating a world itself. Unfortunately, the film suffers, no fault of Cho who does a valiant job.

Even with technology being so prevalent as a narrative device, it leads to more chinks in the armor so to speak. Because what begins as something fairly authentic and relatable starts to show more and more aspects that don’t feel like our lives anymore. Not simply someone going missing but how technology is utilized even in the everyday. These subsequent scenes feel slightly unnatural whereas the opening interludes where full of recognition with moments we all probably relate to.

The core issue is the human aspect being gone. It loses a heartbeat on its characters who are meant to make this thriller something to really get invested in. Searching never quite got me there, where I felt an innate connection. Again, noting the obvious irony, the screens got in the way.

3/5 Stars

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

MI_–_Fallout.jpgTom Cruise is the closest thing we have to a modern marvel on the current cinema landscape. Despite being over 50 years old, it seems like he continues to redefine what it means to be an action hero in the 21st century. A lot of his brilliance stems from taking a page out of the playbook from generations gone by.

He is by no means Buster Keaton but he channels that same fearless energy that makes the movies feel like an arena of adrenaline-filled possibility. The important distinction is the very fact his films do not shy away from CGI and yet they find this perfect medium between real and practical stunts, paired with the limitless canvas current technology allows for.

Despite the obvious implications, it’s hard not to think of the double meaning of Fallout as Cruise finds himself skydiving, fighting, chasing, leaping, and bounding his way through his mission. He hangs suspended from an escaping helicopter in one perilous stunt that looks deserving of our trepidation.

There’s the noted seismic jump that literally leads to him breaking his leg because his convincing flailing momentum took him right into the side of a building — clinging to its edge — instead of lifting him over. Any number of toils and sacrifices he takes for the movie pay heavy dividends. As an audience, we can see his effort and applaud him for it.

Like Keaton before him, there is something attractive about a hero who is implacable. Nothing can stop them. Cruise even gets a motorcycle chase of his own no doubt worthy of Steve McQueen, if not even better (I can’t believe I said that).

It’s always a pleasure to admit a film has some stellar twists and Fallout more than delivers in this regard. Some are easily foreseeable and a couple might catch just about everyone off guard. As it should be. However, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because the story does not put all its eggs in this single basket. Once the twists are done with, there are still so many other reasons to stay engaged.

If we are to believe Hitchcock, it is not about these sudden payoffs but this maintained sense of constant tension and impending doom. Fallout grabs us in its opening scene and will not dare let up. Writer-director Christoper McQuarrie is in such a unique position because, with the aid of Cruise, he has created his own personal sandbox to work with, while running with Ethan Hunt and the Mission Impossible universe that has been bequeathed to him.

He feels more than comfortable with these characters and the world and this allows him to employ a certain amount of torque and elasticity to stretch it to its utter limit. This is far from Bruce Geller’s franchise headlined by Peter Graves in the 1960s. MI has been cross-pollinated with Bond, Bourne, and anything else you can imagine from Jackie Chan to the plethora of modern spy TV programs on the airwaves.

What sets it apart is the specificity of this world and this we can attribute back to McQuarrie. Vagueness, austere execution, and bland beats will get you nowhere in this day and age. Sure, we have the overarching MacGuffin. There are the three plutonium cores being bandied about for the life of Ethan Hunt’s nemesis Solomon Lane, underlined by the threat of mercenary terrorists operating based on his influence across the globe.

A plethora of covert organizations all have a hand in these international affairs. One of them is MIA headed by Alec Baldwin, another the CIA with Angela Basset. She has brought in her own man (Henry Cavill) to finish up business. In her eyes, Ethan Hunt has already jeopardized the job; he cannot be trusted to see it to completion. If these organizations are purportedly on the same team (along with MI6), one can only imagine what happens when they cross paths with their real enemies mixed in with social terrorists and opportunists like White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). But every antagonistic, tension-filled dynamic is all crucial for there to be a story of any conflict and consequence.

However, the meaning is aggregated because of what our hero is up against. Stakes of a personal nature are almost imperative because they take these broad social issues with heady implications and place them right in the wheelhouse of a hero. It’s no coincidence Ethan Hunt is touted for caring for individual people around him because this influences how he saves the world. It’s full of humanity. It also complicates his life like nothing else.

Not only is Lane still on the loose, conducting a mission of not simply anarchy but out and out revenge, he’s after Ethan and those close to him. Because the friendships of Luther and Benji run thick and deep. He will do just about anything to protect his buddies. The same goes for Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who inevitably ties into the action. In my estimation, Ferguson remains one of my favorite action heroes, full of resiliency, wit, and most important of all, a believable amount of humanity.

In this particular story, their relationship is plagued by the hazards of such an occupation, making excruciating choices, and finding people you care about on the other end of a kill list. But to Hunt, the important differentiation is that these are not liabilities (although they might seem to be), as much as they are what sets him apart. And if you thought the connections end there, you’d be very much mistaken. Someone else very important to him (Michelle Monahan) turns up again.

This film is constantly twisting and turning, bursting with movement and setpieces galore but it simultaneously builds to a genuinely satisfying crescendo. This would not be possible without the legitimate character dynamics built over the years. Even someone like me — a relative latecomer to the franchise — can feel the gravitational pull between these people. There is a weight to the relationships even within this context of cloak and dagger danger.

In the end, the final act feels like a textbook example of cross-cutting because we have three strands that we’re constantly invested in. We care about the characters in peril but also about their objectives. Each one ties into this greater mission and the ultimate resolution of our story.

Disarming a bomb is a staple and alone it would seem trite. It’s reinforced by the other parties tracking down the second plutonium core conveniently stationed with a clandestine Lane, now in hiding.

Simultaneously Hunt fearlessly tracks a helicopter carrying the prop that must be retrieved if all the other tasks are not to be for naught. It’s a throwaway object really but what makes up for it is the continued tenacity of Cruise to take on the stunts and make the action sequences compelling — that and special effects, of course. But we don’t feel completely bloated by them. There is enough personal interaction to make it feel accessible even on this harrowing scale.

We finally reach the peak and just as it seems we’ll either be blasted to oblivion or tossed over the cliffside, the release valve is hit with ultimate satisfaction. This is without a doubt one of the most exhilarating rushes available over the past summer. There’s little left to do but be flabbergasted by Tom Cruise. Top Gun was so long ago. Even the original Mission Impossible is now over 20 years old. Yet he remains as a lucrative action star and for the time being, he isn’t going anywhere.

4/5 Stars

Night Nurse (1931)

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We’re introduced to the day-to-day in a hospital ward with mothers giving birth, delinquents under police custody, and bootleggers coming in on the lamb with mysterious ailments. Barbara Stanwyck arrives in the office inquiring about a position as a nurse and she is flatly rejected for her references and lack of a full high school education.

Reluctantly she exits only to make a connection in the revolving door with a white-haired genial doctor (Charles Winninger) who pulls some strings and lands her a spot as a trainee. Her roommate and guide to this new existence is the lively Maloney (Joan Blondell). The male interns send her a warm welcome too. Namely a skeleton in her bed which gets her in particular trouble during a late night bed check from the head nurse who rules the nurses quarters with an iron fist.

This is all only a setup of the films main concerns which have roots in sordid drama and soap opera-like thrills. The melodrama comes into full view as we are introduced to none other than a mustache-less macho Clark Gable who upon being asked who he is, replies “Nick the Chauffeur” only to be captured in closeup while eliciting a gasp from a night nurse.

It’s textbook stuff and then he proceeds to wallop her as she tries to use the telephone. But a smidgen of context is in order. Lora starts her first shift as a night nurse looking after two darling little girls. But from what she can tell they are systematically being starved and their perpetually tipsy mother, Mrs. Ritchie, seems to have very little input. Meanwhile, the doctor who took over the case when Dr. Bell was deposed is shady at best. All the while, Nick leers and strong arms his way around, making sure that Lora doesn’t do anything against the doctor’s orders. Conveniently that means no nourishment.

But “Little Miss Iodine” doesn’t go down without a fight. With the girls slowly wasting away upstairs and needless extravagant parties being held continually downstairs with booze freely flowing, Lora lays down the law. She smacks the girls’ mother around a little for her parental negligence. Also, it turns out that Lora’s new boyfriend comes in handy when he’s not bootlegging. They make a swell couple.

On the whole, this picture of emaciation is slightly disjointed and hyperbolic in its own right. There’s also probably too liberal an amount of undressing on camera. Because it’s only purpose is to be provocative.

I’m not quite sure if I ever figured out the mechanics of it all but there is an undeniable fury to it and William Wellman directs it as such through every beat from comedy to romance to mystery thriller. So with stalwart performances by Stanwyck and a no-good Clark Gable on the rise, matched by a certain enigmatic potency, there is enough meat here to make it a mildly diverting Pre-Code effort.

3/5 Stars

The Window (1949)

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The main conceit is just too delightful to ignore. It posits the following dramatic question: What if the boy who cried wolf saw a murder being committed immediately afterward? Because that’s precisely what happens to little Tommy Woodry.

He’s one of those imaginative little boys who likes playing Cowboys and Indians while telling his contemporaries that his family has a large ranch out west where they raise horses. It all seems perfectly innocent except in close confines such stories take on a life of their own. Soon the landlord assumes that the Woodrys will be moving out shortly.

It’s not just this incident either but Tommy has a history of dreaming up all sorts of stories and wanting to teach their son good old-fashioned American values and honesty, his parents say there will be consequences if he lies again.

What happens next is so absurd and outrageous Tommy is sunk even before he’s begun. He spies the upstairs neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Kellerson (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) take part in a grisly murder. He does the fairly logical thing and goes to wake up his mother to let her know what he witnessed. But it’s not so logical based on what has already happened.

First, she dismisses his stories as a bad dream but after he goes down to the police station to get them involved, his mother is even more alarmed. Mr. Woodry comes back home from the night shift to hear about his son’s behavior and as much as he doesn’t like to do it, he does the fatherly thing and punishes the boy.

He’s meant to stay in his room and that wouldn’t be so bad if his father didn’t work nights and his mother wasn’t called away to take care of her ailing kinfolk. Because the Kellersons know he’s been snooping around and they’re not about to be found out — especially not by an inquisitive kid. When they figure out what he knows, he’s little better than a sitting duck.

If it wasn’t obvious from the outset the picture sets itself up for a claustrophobic finale that’s quite the piece of entertainment. Rear Window is one of my favorite films and it’s hard not to draw up comparisons between the two pictures because they both utilize their limited space well and allow us to get inside the plight of our protagonist in a way that’s excruciatingly disconcerting.

For L.B. Jeffries it’s the fact that he’s trapped in a wheelchair with a purported murderer living right across the courtyard from him. In this picture, it’s that little Tommy has his freedom revoked and finds himself made prisoner in his own home with his parent’s gone because they are angry with his constant fits of fibbing.

But more so than Rear Window which is a fairly opulent picture, The Window suggest the impoverished state of the characters at the fore, living on the Lower East Side as they do. Their lives are not glamorous at home or at work. They have a tough time scraping by and it shows in their dress and how they present themselves every day.

Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale do a fine job as Tommy’s parents because they feel like decent folks, generally humble and wanting to raise their son the best way. That doesn’t make their immune to parental blunders but, nevertheless, they love their boy.

Likewise, Paul Stewart is a bit menacing and thuggish veiling it with a good-natured facade while Ruth Roman normally remembered for fairly upright roles is cast as a wife who seems more frightened by her circumstances than anything else. She’s hardly a villain but that doesn’t make her any less complicit in this whole affair.

Bobby Driscoll was on loan out from Disney and he embodies the precocious nature of a boy in a way that’s completely believable and at the very least compelling.  It’s a wonderful live-action performance to fit right alongside his voice work before his life took a tragic dive into drug addiction.

It might be an unnecessary connection to make but director Ted Tetzlaff was formerly a cinematographer and one of the films attributed to him was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) from only a few years before. Hitch would come out with his home thriller in 1954. I’m still partial to the later film — it’s one of my personal favorites — but there’s no doubt The Window proves itself as a harrowing family thriller in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars

My Favorite Blonde (1942)

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Bob Hope was one of the 20th centuries greatest personalities but sometimes his pictures weren’t always up to par. The most obvious exceptions would be the majority of the Road pictures with Bing Crosby, The Paleface films with Jane Russell, and this fun addition pairing our beloved funnyman with the divine Madeleine Carroll.

It’s not quite a Hitchcockian thriller but Madeleine Carroll provides an icy blonde secret agent while Bob Hope is in usual form with his typical smart-mouthed nitwit characterization that garners our love.

Carrying over some of the world from The 39 Steps (1935), enemy agents are looking to intercept invaluable secrets that are needing to make their way to America in the hands of Karen Bentley (Carroll). Her partner has already bought it and she has two tails observing her every move.

The place she chooses to hide away at is the backstage of a vaudeville joint where Larry Haines (Hope) is just finishing up with his penguin partner Percy who has a big contract coming in Hollywood. Larry has been included on the bill as an afterthought.

But all that is put on hold when this beautiful, mysterious woman wanders into his life. He gladly entertains her company and yet he doesn’t know what else comes with that proposition. In typical fashion, Hope’s character always bites off more than he can chew whether it be villains or women. He’s got no answer for either.

A near wordless confrontation occurs on a train as the girl hides and Hope sits with some leering thugs in the club car, filling the moments with nervous comedy bits.

His answer for Ms. Bentley isn’t much better. It’s the same type of patter that would be recycled in My Favorite Brunette (1946) or other Hope sketches where the woman plays it straight, seducing him and he’s outright oblivious from the first advance. He has no defenses to speak of. A few strands of cajoling baby talk and he’s putty in their hands.

But the gal gives him so many mixed signals he’s libel to run out on her cockamamie ways or let her have it (Yeah the little man is hurt and if the little woman doesn’t watch it she’s going to get a little hit in the head). Still, they somehow keep winding up in the same places. Perhaps it’s because she’s conveniently hidden vital international secrets under the lapel of his coat.

He somehow feels like the only normal fellow in a screwed up world but if everyone else is playing cloak and dagger games, that becomes the new normal and he begins to look all the crazier turning increasingly more paranoid due to the various antics around him. Maybe he doesn’t have all his buttons after all. If he’s our new archetype for the man-on-the-run, then I’m Cary Grant.

Some throwaway expositional dialogue over the film’s MacGuffin gives Hope ample time to retort with a joke about his ring being filled with Benny Goodman and his band (They had to drop a clarinet player. It was a little crowded). That exact moment exquisitely sums up why the film works. There’s the spy thriller arc that is continuously deflated and lampooned by Hope’s particular brand of comedic zingers.

An ingenious ploy to escape an apartment complex crawling with baddies leads to a rampage to trash the joint while drumming up some marital pandemonium that’s bound to bring some police. It’s sheer comedic chaos and…it works. Ironically, Cary Grant would reuse a similar gag in North by Northwest (1959).

Another moment Hope is taking on the mantle of a baby specialist, Doctor Higbie, much in the way that Robert Donat joins a political rally in The 39 Steps. Both men pull quips out of their backsides to stirring results on their way to their next juncture on their ever-changing itinerary.

Thanks to an absolutely nefarious move by that criminal mastermind Gale Sondergaard, a murder is called in by the real culprits and pinned on our heroes. But Hope continually proves his faithfulness or at least how much he likes the blonde with the face and a certain je ne sais quoi. And that’s part of Carroll’s allure but far from being a glamorous Brit, she proves just how much she can pull off the more screwball elements that Hope already seems at home in.

The home stretch leads to California with the murder rap still hanging over their heads and a funeral parlor in their sights. To get there it took them a bus, a plane, a winking Bing Crosby cameo, and a few watermelons a piece.

Like the best classic thrillers it’s not so much the outcome but the road it takes to get there that we relish the most. This one has a lot of lovely inane speed bumps that perfectly accentuate the utter contrast between Madeleine Carroll and Bob Hope’s character types. They actually end up making a witty romantic couple and Hope as always gets the last laugh in on camera.

4/5 Stars

Arrival (2016)

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Abbott and Costello can be placed with the most revered comic duos of the 20th century and their greatest skit revolved around a terrible miscommunication. The bit, of course, is “Who’s on First.” Whereas the “failure to communicate” found in Cool Hand Luke (1967) has more to do with our human tendency toward stubbornness and rebellion, it’s just as likely that we just don’t understand each other semantically speaking. The results can be comedic like Abbott and Costello demonstrated or they can be dire as exhibited in Arrival.

It was only later that I realized that far from being a pair of human, cultural pet names, bestowing the two aliens in this film these monikers came with a deeper resonance. There’s this recognition that hinges on the lack of an ability to communicate. What devolves is a thoroughly cognizant exploration of such dilemmas packed into a sci-fi thriller.

Imagine, there can actually be an intelligent sci-fi film about intelligent life. The themes that stood out to me concern themselves with our articulation of time and space which are also so thoroughly interlinked with language. When we actually look at the components that Denis Villeneuve has joined, we have a thoughtful effort that takes us through the minutiae of language and the mechanics of communicating with foreign life forms starting from scratch. The tension comes in not being able to decipher if they are friend or foe. Because any extraterrestrial life always delivers an element of surprise and a fear of the unknown.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistic expert and college professor who is quickly called upon by the U.S. government’s Colonel Webber (Forrest Whitaker) to examine an alien capsule that has landed in Montana. It is 1 of 12 such units discovered all over the earth. Banks is joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they attempt to create a line of communication between the two heptapods they come in contact with. Ian is the one to nickname them Abbott and Costello.

What begins is a tedious process to form some sort of mutual understanding using the very building blocks of linguistics. It leads to an incremental understanding of creatures who compose their language not moment by moment but simultaneously front to back in a perfect cohesive composition that comes into being in a single moment. The goal is to get to a point where they can be asked what their purpose on earth is. Of course, that will take time and with time comes increased anxiety.

Far from being a singular endeavor, since 12 different pods have emerged, it’s an ongoing ordeal involving the entire world which adds a more complex dimension to it all. It’s not simply about navigating relations with these unidentified life forms but also coping with other countries with different ways of dealing with this tenuous situation. Not everyone is on the same page and as is often the case, fear drives action more than rationality.

Still, this paves the way for revelations and eureka moments that bend the ways we perceive the world through language and time whether linear or nonlinear. The implications are many. Because Film has often been a medium to manipulate, constrain, and contort time. But what if our very lives were defined by a different set of parameters as put in place by our very basic forms of communication? Life envisioned from start to finish. Palindromes endowed with a rich lode of meaning they never seemed to have before.

Arrival belongs to a hopeful strain of science fiction explorations that seems to look at the outer reaches of the galaxy with expectancy instead of trepidation. Instead of isolationism toward the universe at large, there’s an ardor to know what it might teach us. Instead of recoiling in fear, other life forms become helpers, not hinderers. The same could be said for the small-scale world. Progress is made when we hold onto altruistic intentions. Tools become far more vital than weapons. Everyone can thrive.

So often aliens and other lifeforms were forever depicted as horrible and dangerous beings that have come to decimate us. But rather like its forefather, Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), Arrival seems to be more sympathetic to any life that might be out there. Ironically, by making them more human we begin to see the flaws in our own society. We are very often fearful, petty people. But we can also be capable of great expressions of love with global impact.

The film’s cinematography is marked by a distinctive washed-out palette that cloaks everyone. It’s composed of a foggy haze that far from just defining a corner of the earth seems to be emblematic of the entire world. And yet such a dour world with obscured contours is surprisingly hopeful as discovery burgeons up through its core. Because if the world around us is murky that simply means that the light is put in sharper relief. Arrival proves to be satisfying to the very last iota.

4/5 Stars

Review: Notorious (1946)

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I never put much stock in a Hitchcock title out of force of habit or lack thereof because he never seemed to. But thinking on Notorious I came to the rather unextraordinary epiphany that it refers to lovely Ingrid Bergman as much as any Nazi, at least from a certain perspective.

In the film, she plays the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who was put on trial and found guilty. She, however, is not implicated in his deeds. Instead, busying herself with having a good time, drinking, dancing, laughing — all the superficial pursuits that can distract her from a post-atomic world. You might even say her reputation precedes her and that provides the framework for how others see Ms. Huberman. Namely, one government agent named Devlin, put on her case and writing her off early on as a certain kind of woman.

There’s that initial shot at one of her parties where all the guests are dancing and drinking and everything’s jovial and there Cary Grant sits on the edge of the frame just his profile identifiable to us. And the beauty of the scene is that Ingrid Bergman starts talking to him but instead of showing us his face Hitchcock elects to wait until everyone is gone and they’re sitting together in the next scene. But already there’s this implicit sense that there’s something unusual about this man even without putting words to it.

In the subsequent scene, we get our first view of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together and how wonderful they look. But Bergman’s character makes an off-handed remark about love songs, about how they’re a bunch of “hooey.” Of course, that pertains to this film and where it will decide to go in the realms of romance, but in my own mind, I see it also functioning as a reaction to Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By” — a film where lovers fell in love partially because of a song.

It’s easy to put the title of a spiritual sequel on Notorious for numerous reasons. Once again we have Bergman and Rains in crucial roles and then trading out Bogey for another legend in his own right, Cary Grant. The paranoia of Casablanca is replaced with the sunnier disposition of Rio de Janeiro which nevertheless is underlined by a certain looming Cold War menace. In this case, instead of the letters of transit, we are provided a Hitchcock MacGuffin, including a bottle of wine, some uranium, and an iconic UNICA key.

But if nothing else these minor remarks can put the debate to rest conclusively. Notorious is a spectacular film in its own right and it enters some similar yet still uncharted territory in accordance with the waters Casablanca chose to ford a few years prior. Meanwhile, Grant has glimpses of his previous self from other films but soon enough he falls into the role of cool and calculated federal agent Devlin in what feels like a true departure.

There’s that supremely unnerving shot as we take on the perspective of a disoriented Ingrid Bergman as Grant walks into the room and hangs over her in a strangely alarming way. Everything is setting up the dynamic at this point.

Still, others will remember the extended make-out session that made history by upholding the Hays Code ” three-second rule” while simultaneously perfectly encapsulating nearly an entire romance in a matter of four or five minutes. There was little else to be said because it was all seen in that one sequence and Hitchcock could proceed with his conceit.

Because, ultimately, Hitchcock’s picture is built around this idea: The American government has a little job to be done and Alicia and Devlin are caught in the middle. Thus, it becomes that time-worn idea of love versus duty. In one sense, Devlin’s caught in a terrible position and yet in the other he treats Alicia so badly — and it’s not simply that this is Alicia but this is beautiful, sweet Ingrid Bergman that he is pushing away. Still, in pushing her away, it’s leading her toward the objective.

He’s simply not willing to dictate anything because that means being vulnerable. Very simply he’s not willing to open up.  Cary Grant has never felt so icy, so aloof, and so unfeeling. Then, on top of this, Sebastian (Rains) looks a far more agreeable fellow cast in such a light. He genuinely loves this woman even if she is a spy. It makes for a conflicted viewing experience.

Though there is a juncture in the film where Devlin is beginning to shift his way of thinking. But as if on cue (undoubtedly) one line of dialogue out of Alicia’s mouth during a racetrack exchange (“You can add Sebastian to my list of playmates”) poisons his whole frame of mind again. His prior opinions of Alicia are confirmed and he sours to her — never giving her the benefit of the doubt from that point forward — and ultimately torturing her so that there is no other choice.

Just like that, she goes through with it. Instigating her relationship with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) and succeeding so thoroughly that she’s married to him soon enough. For the U.S. government this is a smashing success but for Alicia and Devlin it’s nothing of the sort.

The descending stairwell crane shot is textbook Hitchcock and so often cited but it’s for that very reason. He so directly points us toward the cues of the scene and he does it with his usual technical elegance.

He gives us a party but it’s a party underlined with so much tension because there are stakes that go beyond the nominal appearances. There’s the fact that Devlin’s one of the party guests but also Alicia has that all important key that proves to be their chance to figure out what Sebastian is hiding. But it also makes them far more suspicious.

Beset with paranoia as much as illness she’s suffocated by the presence of her husband and mother-in-law. It looks like Devlin will never come to her. But he does. We’ve seen this before. Cary Grant comes to her bed as she lies there disoriented and looks up into the eyes of this man looking to be her savior instead of opting to use her. At least on one account, the tension has been resolved.

But in the same breath never has there been so much sympathy as for Claud Rains in the closing moment indicative of how Hitch has even given his purported villain a chance to be sympathized with and Rain’s typically compelling performance does precisely that. So even in this final moment, Hitchcock is playing with us giving us that Hollywood ending that we desire and at the same time undermining it in a wonderful way that’s both suspenseful and artistically arresting.

Notorious just might be the Master’s purest expression of his art lacking the micromanagement of Selznick in Rebecca (1940), the technical experiments of Rear Window (1954), the psycho-sexual layers of Vertigo (1958), the man-on-the-run motif of North by Northwest (1959), or even the low budget and marketing frenzy of Psycho (1960), while still garnering the highest production values in its day.  The results speak for themselves, positioning Notorious as one of the definitive romantic thrillers by any standard.

5/5 Stars

Review: Spellbound (1945)

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The Fault… is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves… — William Shakespeare

It’s so easy to adore Ingrid Bergman and it’s no different in Spellbound. Yes, she starts off as an austere psychiatrist purely interested and invested in scientific thought and practices in psychoanalysis. However, by the film’s conclusion, she evokes the passionate vitality that made her so beloved in pictures such as Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946).

The eminent Gregory Peck was still in the dawn of his career and while not your typical Hitchcockian hero, he is Gregory Peck a handsome actor with tremendous presence and a quiet dignity that made him an acting favorite for years to come, shortly to gain the reputation of an undisputed superstar. Put two such icons together and it’s honestly very difficult not to be won over, especially in a Hitchcock picture.

In fact, I’m predisposed to empathize with both of them from the very beginning and to thoroughly enjoy this picture even if it’s hardly the best of Hitchcock or the respective stars. But the story about the female psychiatrist Constance who falls in love with her colleague and subsequent patient one Dr. Edwards does have its share of enjoyments without question, aside from the names above the title.

As with any solid Hitchcock movie, there’s psychological duress and the man is implicated in a murder that he must run away from even if it’s proved he is innocent. So Spellbound is no question a romance and a bit of a mystery wrapped up neatly in a psychological thriller.

Michael Checkov the famed Russian stage performer (and nephew of Anton Chekhov) plays Dr. Brulov, Constance’s old mentor — a charming sort of gentleman who is impertinent but oh so sweet to his friends  — exhibiting the most jovial of personalities.

Even today, there still is a certain logic to psychodynamic therapy as there is to cognitive behavioral therapy that seems believable depending on how it is utilized and who is practicing it. Thus, though there are jumps Spellbound makes that are a little bit preposterous or a little too easy to resolve — like the perfect correlation between dreams and reality — there’s still kernels of truth in this film and it must be lauded for tackling the ideas of Freud in ways that were fairly groundbreaking for their day.

It also boasts the famed dream sequences inspired and partially orchestrated by the acclaimed surrealist artist Salvador Dali. His imprint is undeniable on the images that Peck recounts, reminiscent of the Persistence of Time and other similar works. Even Hitchcock would continue to address these topics with an arguably more Hitchcockian dream sequence in Vertigo and some similar analysis at the end of Psycho to assess Norman Bates.

Of course, Hitchcock films are at their best when the plot is working in spite of dialogue. Though the script is composed by Ben Hecht who has a long list of wonderful accomplishments, there’s also the influence of the overbearing hand of David O. Selznick on the picture meaning it relies perhaps too much on verbal explanation instead of Hitchcock’s own timeless setpieces or visual approach to cinema. Still, he does manage a few perspective shots that are particularly interesting providing us the frame of reference of several of his characters in key moments.

There’s also the benefit of Miklos Rozsa’s particularly elegant score which nevertheless is less a Hitchcock score as Bernard Hermann would famously compose later. In some respects, it suffocates the drama though it does include the cutting edge use of the Theremin, this marking one of its earliest appearances in a film score.

But ultimately, Spellbound does have a delightful false ending, as things slowly spiral down into despair only to find their new conclusion as all the puzzle pieces of Peck’s character begin to fit together. His exoneration is followed by the ousting of the real perpetrator, another quintessential Hitchcock villain.

The summation seems to be that though humanity might be wrought with shortcomings, many of them buried so deep inside, love does have an uncommon power to heal old wounds. The fault might be in ourselves but that need not be the resolution of the story.

3.5/5 Stars