Confidentially Yours (1983)

This is my Entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fall Blogathon Movies are Murder!

Although no one knew it at the time, Confidentially Yours would become the makeshift curtain call to Francois Truffaut’s career as he died of a brain tumor shortly thereafter. The movie in no way makes up for the works we lost out on, but there are some fitting summations worth appreciating. Truffaut cast his latest muse, Fanny Ardant, in the lead role — subverting the prototypical blonde Hitchocockian heroine.

Like her predecessors, Ardant is winsome and brave, whether in stage garb or a trenchcoat in the tradition of noir working girls like Ella Raines or even Grace Kelly. They’re capable of being both intrepid and alluring on screen as the dauntless motor behind the story.

It’s true the film’s plot, execution, and sense of style owe a debt of gratitude to Truffaut’s cinematic hero. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s film Stage Fright, Confidentially Yours covers murder and the performative aspects surrounding it.

There’s a kind of duality because Ardant is not only a secretary embroiled in a local murder, but also moonlights as a stage performer at night even as she dons various parts throughout the movie to aid in her detective work. Much of this fades away as mere pretense as we get deeper and deeper into the nitty-gritty world of old-fashioned noir.

Confidentially Yours boasts a brisk beginning befitting a more contemporary film: A man is brutally shot out at a pond, and there’s only one obvious suspect. Truffaut implicates his own star through the cut because the first image we see after a bloody murder by a faceless perpetrator is Jean-Louis Trinitnant walking back to his car. He sees a nearby car door left ajar, and he closes it before returning to his own vehicle and driving off. When the police come to question him later, he seems to slip up in his story.

Surely he’s a guilty party. He has motive. His wife was unfaithful, and now one of her many boyfriends is dead. What’s more, Trintignant plays him as a brusque character — he’s not winning any awards for likeability — and yet these are not the metrics for guilt and innocence as we’re probably already all aware of. To use a staid figure of speech, people are often more than meets the eye.

Also, there’s the question about fingerprints. He left them all over the crime scene. Either he’s an incalculable fool or there’s more to the story. Ardant occupies an unenviable position. She seems to be working for a guilty party, she’s given the ax by her embittered employer, and yet she still finds some compulsion to begin poking around.

She starts sleuthing, coming into contact with a melange of lawyers, policemen, and shadowy undesirables. It’s easy to get bogged down by what feels like an incomprehensible cascade of plotting, but isn’t this the point? It’s not the particulars but the means of getting there proving the most important, and Ardent is one of the most supernal vessels we could possibly imagine. Somehow she seems like the predecessor of Hayley Atwood with the poise of Isabella Rossellini thrown in for good measure.

One of the film’s other lasting assets is the gorgeous monochromatic tones of Nestor Almendros. It proves to be an immaculate act of mimesis plucking the movie out of the ’80s and allowing it to drift into that timeless era of yesteryear that only lives in the thoughts and recollections of our elders who experienced the world and dreamed in black and white.

As her employer stays mostly anonymous behind his shuttered-up storefront, Ardant becomes his hands and feet, searching out a ticket taker at a movie house, and then leading to a nightclub. Later, she looks to infiltrate a prostitution ring using all her wiles to spy out the window of the lavatory. Eventually, her tenacity is rewarded, and she does what the police seem incapable of through normal channels.

Truffaut for me will always be one of the most ardent cinephiles with the likes of Martin Scorsese and a handful of others. Men who often made fantastic, exhilarating films, but not out of a debt to mere craftsmanship or technique. It’s so palpable how much they love these things. Their films can’t help but smolder with a boyish fanaticism they were never quite able to shake.

Scorsese still seems to make a young man’s movies with an old man’s themes, and even though we lost Truffaut at 53, hardly in the autumn of his life, he had some of the same proclivities. He loves the genre conventions of old. There’s almost a giddy enthusiasm to do his own Hitchcock movies like Shoot The Piano Player, Mississippi Mermaid, The Bride Wore Black or even this final entry.

And yet on the other end of the spectrum with the likes of Antoine Doinel, The Wild Child, and Pocket Money, he managed to tap into these deep reservoirs of emotional soulfulness. It feels as if adolescence is incarnated and imbued with empathy by someone who never quite left that life behind.

Since Godard still manages to have an influence on cinema culture as one of the revered old guard throughout this century, it remains a shame we lost Truffaut so prematurely. He still lives on through his films and the admiration of others like Steven Spielberg, but I do feel like if he was still alive today, his love of the movies would be equally infectious if not more so. I suppose it makes the catalog he left behind all the more important.

I didn’t consider until this very moment, but with “confidentially yours” the director is leaving us with his final valediction before signing off. It seems fitting his complementary farewell drips with the pulp sentiments he relished starring a lady whom he loved.

4/5 Stars

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

House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

He Walked By Night (1948)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

Desperate (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

These old Jack Arnold films are a perfect example of how expectations don’t always meet reality. Because if you’re like me, you have a certain preconception about how these movies will go — how they will look — and thus you may have written them off. Part of this might be the fault of the movie posters and the sensationalized advertising, and it also might be chalked up to our cliche-filled cache of old sci-fi and monster movie imagery.

The Incredible Shrinking Man fits comfortably as a twee ’50s-era television rom-com. “Scott” Carey (Grant Williams) is on a vacation with his wife playfully arguing about who will get the beers from the galley of the boat. It’s a bit of levity even as they jockey around the roles of man and wife in a marriage.

Minutes later Scott’s engulfed by a curious mist that comes out over the sea, and it leaves him confounded. For the moment, there’s nothing more to say. Months later, they are back in their suburban life. The milkman stops by in the morning, Louise busies herself in the kitchen, and Scott gets ready for work. Except, this morning his pants are too big — the dry cleaners must have made a mistake — but then his shirt is too big also. It throws him off.

His wife doesn’t have any clue either and so he goes to his doctor for a physical. The genial doctor (William Schallert) tries to explain away the changes with the routine explanations. Because, to put it plainly, people don’t get shorter…unless they do. It’s true there is no medical precedent for what’s going on with Scott.

He’s put through all sorts of tests to make some sense of the change in his body. Finally, the researchers settle on something. The molecular cells in his body have gone through a rearrangement — no, not cancer — but an anti-cancer. In a eureka moment, they realize a cocktail of insecticide and radioactive mist, led to the adverse effects.

But the Incredible Shrinking Man is hardly a story obsessed with the nuclear age. Instead, the premise turns into a far more intriguing conceit about everything from emasculation to Scott becoming a sideshow attraction in the media with national notoriety. The phone rings off the hook and people hang around to gawk at the new pariah.

Going out to clear his head only makes matters worse. Normal, everyday scenarios like walking down a street corner or grabbing a cup of coffee only emphasize his size even as the carnival freak show makes him queasy. He’s one of them. It’s true that one of their members, Clarice, is the same size as him. Being with her is some small comfort to him. Still, even that doesn’t last. He continues to shrink.

Rapidly his loving marriage begins to dissolve around him correlated with his continually diminishing size. Louise hasn’t changed, but Scott is bitter now, understandably discontent, and prone to lash out at his wife regardless of what she tries to do. On a side note, it’s wonderful to simply sit back and appreciate the scale of everything and this is years before similar trickery would be pulled in a film like the Hobbit for instance.

Marvel at the perspectives. There’s the harrowing moment where the cat gets back into the house, and it becomes a fight for survival as the feline terrorizes the dollhouse Scott now inhabits. In the wake of the incident, he is pronounced dead though he’s really only trapped in the cellar with no possible way of climbing up the massive stairs.

The pervading sense of helplessness sets in as Louise leaves the house one last time prepared to sell their home at the behest of her brother. They drive off, and that’s the end of it. What a dismal arc it is when we consider the initial joy of the marriage. We almost forget all of this if only because of the immediacy of the journey Scott still has ahead of him.

This demarcation point sets up the latter stage of the film as it devolves into a Robinson Crusoesque adventure set in the basement. He wouldn’t have given a thought about only a year prior. Now it’s a moment-by-moment struggle.

Realizing he’s trapped, Scott seeks shelter in a forgotten matchbox. Then, he finds himself water and sustenance and even creates some tools — including a spear. The emergence of a tarantula makes it all too evident he is no longer on the top of the food chain. If he is to live another day, he must vanquish the other creature or die trying. When they face off, dread sets in like I haven’t felt in some time. It’s palpable and strangely compelling in some primordial way. It plays better than many of the glossier battles we are served up today courtesy of CGI.

This is not his only trial. There are great chasms to cross, then torrential floods of water; we take on his powerlessness and are privy to his weakness. The perspective is surprisingly weighty and although Grant Williams is hardly a famed actor, there’s something totally spent about his performance. Behind the scenes, he was sent to the hospital several times due to blisters and other ailments. And he goes through the final act of the movie barefoot and scraggly like a real trouper.

As the narrative continually builds on Scott’s story, it increasingly becomes a movie full of soliloquies and at times the verbosity may be ill-fitting, but what they do provide is something running in the face of all those preconceived notions we have about these exploitative-type movies. They actually do mean something. There is an import to what it is trying to express and get across (at least sometimes).

One evening he peeks out and looks up into the heavens. He has an epiphany. In this vast majesty of creation, he realizes it has to mean something, and therefore he must mean something too.  Suddenly the existential crisis of man is given center stage and in another stunning turn, the incredible shrinking man’s struggle is precisely our struggle, coming to terms with our place in the world — the vast infinite spaces of the galaxies as we ourselves are insignificant in comparison. It’s all relative but in a single moment, we are made to feel a lot like him. But if we make peace with our station in life perhaps it is more of a blessing than a curse.

4/5 Stars

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

BLOG UPDATE: Cutting Back on Posting

Masculin Féminin (1966)

Hello to everyone who has taken the time to read this film blog!

First off, thank you so much for reading! I’m really bad at self-promotion so the fact that anyone would take time to look over something I’ve written still humbles me. I’ve been amazed to see how this site has grown.

A few months ago, I celebrated 10 years of this blog! I alluded to it then, but writing for this site has been a great rhythm for me. I still love the process, and it brings me great joy to write about films. There is a thrill to it, not just in watching the films, but also getting to articulate how I feel about them.

That being said, although I still have a lot of reviews in the pipeline, I’m probably going to cut back on posting. It will be fun to focus more of my attention on other things. I’m still here, and I’ll still be releasing content every month, but I think I’ll enjoy going at a more languid pace. We’ll see what else happens along the way.

I look forward to keeping the appreciation for classic films going.

Thanks again for reading!

Tynan @ 4 Star Films

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.

Le Petit Soldat (1963)

“Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times a second.”

Although Le Petit Soldat was released in 1963 — no thanks to the censors — it was actually filmed in 1960. This context is all-important because Jean-Luc Godard is still fresh off the sensibilities of Breathless, and they pervade this film as well.

Its plot follows the aftermath of a professor killed in a terrorist attack and a young journalist in Geneva, who is enlisted by French intelligence to assassinate a man named Palivoda. This is in the age of the Algerian War; the young man, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), has avoided the draft, and the man he’s assigned to kill is a National Liberation Front sympathizer.

If it’s not apparent already, the groundwork has been set for a political spy thriller. While balking at murdering the man in a drive by, Bruno simultaneously falls in love with Veronica (Anna Karina), a dark-haired beauty in a trench coat. His friends bet him he’ll fall in love the first time he sees her on the street. He sheepishly shells over the money after only a brief introduction. He’s instantly smitten.

Le Petit Soldat is such a literary film thanks in part to its voiceover. Bruno, as Godard’s stand-in and cinematic conduit, references a myriad of things. He asks rhetorically about Veronica, “Were her eyes Velasquez gray or Renoir gray?”

It’s as if Godard is contemplating the muse in his own art. Still, he continues with a steady stream of namedrops including painters, authors, and composers. Van Gogh and Gauguin. Then, Beethoven and Mozart. Anna Karina prancing around to Joseph Haydn is definitely its own mood.

It occurs to me this is a distillation of Godard as a filmmaker. It’s a visual style wedded with these deeply mined traditions of literature and art.  Both cutting edge and steeped in the culture of the past before thenceforward going off and creating its own unique vocabulary.

Godard gleefully inserts himself all over the movie on multiple occasions where we see him in the flesh. It’s a spy movie as only he can conceive it totally deconstructed and aware of itself while simultaneously taking most of the thrills out of the genre.

Soldat remains a precursor to Alphaville by effectively turning the contemporary world around him into the environment for his latest genre picture. Whereas Breathless‘s jazz-infused contemporary aesthetic is accentuated by the black and white streets of France, here they are repurposed. Though it’s as much a film about driving around the city philosophizing as it is about any specific dramatic action.

Because Francois Truffaut, while not always disciplined, could spin stories with a narrative arc and genuine emotion. Godard is at his best as a philosopher and cinema iconoclast where his style doesn’t totally get bogged down by ideas, and he uses the medium in ways that would become the new standard. Or at least his own standard, before he decided to upend them again.

But in order to make the case for Anna Karina as more than Godard’s Pygmalion, it’s necessary to consider her screen image in depth. Whatever Godard gave to Anna Karina in terms of iconography or legacy, Karina gave that much back, and they will be inextricably linked for all times. Because if there was ever a reason to fall in love with her, it’s right there in Le Petit Soldat.

His alter ego riffs about God and politics, political left and right, quotes Lenin, and unravels his entire worldview (ie. about a man who loves ideas, not territories). When he asks his girl why she loves him, she shrugs her shoulders and says I don’t know. I don’t think she’s dumb, but whereas here we have one character who is in their head, she seems to be a creature who is real and present in the moment. She has a heart.

Whatever the digressions and despite the perplexing way Bruno interrogates her during their impromptu photoshoot, she is undeniable. If cinema is truth 24 frames a second, she somehow makes Godard’s cinema more accessible and real — she takes his theorizing on truth and gives it a pulse.

The movie is still a thriller, and it follows its own version of narrative beats. Bruno is framed, he continually has second thoughts about his assignment; he gets the gun, but things always get in his way. His heart is not in it — killing a man mercilessly — because this is not who he is.

Instead, he wishes to run away to Brazil with his girl. He’s locked away and tortured as a double agent for his troubles. These sequences are simplistic — contained in a hotel bathroom — and yet as they light matches near his fingertips and dunk him for minutes on end in the water, there’s a definite heartless menace about it.

We have the political bent of Godard’s cinema detected early on before his other overt efforts later in the 60s. It comes in the guise of his story as it unpacks current events, ideologies, and even controversy around torture.

True to form, he has the audacity to cram the final act of an entire movie into one minute of celluloid. He shows us some things and just as easily explains away the rest with voiceover.

It feels like he leaves just as he emerged. He’s totally singular. At times, maddening and bombastic, and yet always prepared with his own take and alternative approaches to convention. Godard will always challenge the viewer and make you reconsider how much you appreciate cinema even as he continually helps to redefine how we conceive things.

1960 or 63. It makes no difference. Le Petit Soldat has a young man’s malaise acting as a film for the coagulating disillusionment of the ’60s. This isn’t your father’s war nor one of his films — not the “cinema du papa” as Truffaut put it. If Godard’s style was coming into its own, with Karina cast front and center, then the propagation of his ideas is equally evident. Cinema would not be the same without his distinct point of view.

3.5/5 Stars

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