The Barefoot Contessa (1954): A Cinderella Story

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While it shares elements with the earlier Pandora and The Flying Dutchman in both its techniques and the mystique projected around Ava Gardner, The Barefoot Contessa ultimately evolves and settles into the narrative rhythms one might expect from its creative partners.

Jack Cardiff returns to give Ava Gardner phenomenal lighting and color — flattering her complexion — beams bursting with radiance and vibrant pigmentation. The extraordinary tones of the cinematography are married with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s penchant for substantial but well-wrought dialogue and a kind of suave dinner repartee dating back to the days of All About Eve. Likewise, the spine of the story is derived from a very conspicuous novelistic device — starting at the end to illuminate the beginning.

Because someone has died. There is a funeral in the gloom of a rainy day in Spain. Although rain falls mainly on the plain, that is no concern of ours. Instead, we meet the onlookers from many walks of life, all sheltered (for the most part) under their respective umbrellas.

Humphrey Bogart is Harry Dawes a veteran movie director and screenwriter halfway around the world from Hollywood & Vine, attending the funeral of one of the industry’s incandescent starlets who burned out far too quickly.

As is commonplace with many of these self-reflexive industry portraits popular specifically during the 1950s, you begin to suspect where stories gleaned their inspirations by weaving fact and fiction together into a new amalgam of the Hollywood dream factory.

This tale of a nightclub singer in Madrid rising to the heights of Hollywood is hardly a far cry from other real-life origin stories. Rita Hayworth was reborn as a screen goddess and eventually married a prince. Lana Turner was discovered at a drug store counter or the likes of Linda Darnell and Ava Gardner herself had Hollywood contracts thrust upon them at such an early age. In other words, this wasn’t just another wishful Hollywood story. There are obvious antecedents floating around the industry.

The world is instantly placeable. Flamenco guitar. The unmistakable Enzo Staiola from the Bicycle Thief as a busboy (in Spain no less). What sets Maria Vargas apart is her startling frankness, hardly enamored with the movie industry.

She makes a startling first impression as much for what she won’t do as for what she does. Because she’s a very hard girl to see — not easily swayed by Hollywood glitz — and terribly grounded when it comes to what she wants for her career.

The wheeling-dealing P.R. man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) talks up what she has to look forward to, continually dabbing his forehead with his hanky from his exuberant bouts of hyperventilation. Meanwhile, the tense and controlling financier, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), sits by expecting everyone to cave to his will.

He’s no Hollywood wunderkind, but he has money to finance the industry’s next big hit. His money speaks and so Dawes and Muldoon follow his lead. He makes the world turn. Maria Vargas knows no such convention. She is the master and perfecter of her own destiny.

Harry’s the first person she feels akin to; he’s a real person without throwing around the pretense of his purported fame. Meanwhile, she’s not completely ignorant of the movie industry, throwing around the names of Lombard and Harlow, Lubitsch, Van Dyke, and La Cava from the golden days.

Even as the lovely dancer sets her sites on Hollywood, she carves out an individual path. She began as an untouchable with no interest in the enticements of men or romance promised by the industry around her.

Because she knows who she is and her grounded roots are signified by her affinity for having her feet in the dirt. You can’t easily change someone to the core of their being. Though she’s not Spanish nor does she exude the qualities of a girl from humble means (looks can be deceiving), Garnder makes the most of it.

There are men jockeying for her affections (or at least ownership of her career) among them Kirk and a frivolous Latin American gigolo, Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring). He is little better, enslaved by his own excesses be it gambling or drink. The man who admires her from a distance and subsequently takes her away from the place is Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), the closest thing to a decent man she’s ever had in her life thus far.

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Harry remains a steadfast friend and a protector of Maria when the world seems full of ravenous wolves and superficial opportunists. He knows Maria better than most; she owns an acute Cinderella complex, looking for her Prince Charming, even if the glass slippers were never meant for her. The Count seems to be the man. Alas, in life midnight often strikes and there’s no way to reclaim the time. Her fairy tale ends in tragedy.

No fault of her own, I never felt the weight or magnitude of Maria and the loss of her life. The way the story continually circles “the round” of funeral guests somehow hinders us even though the myriad of perspectives are meant to help us comprehend her better.

I found myself wanting more Bogart or at least more O’Brien, who gives an impeccable showbiz send-up, but when topics turned to the other men in Maria’s life, the story grows turgid and uninteresting — partially alienating the audience. They were never established in the same way nor do I have the kind of instant rapport with Goring or Brazzi that I instantly feel for Bogart.

Most regrettably, Gardner’s performance is never truly allowed to cast a spell of enchantment aside from a few intermittent scenes. Yes, once again, she’s remarkably beautiful and Jack Cardiff’s camera does wonders to ignite her God-given features in an extraordinary light. When she dances with gypsies or wanders through grand estates in luxuriant gowns, she has powers to entrance the audience.

However, her actual performance — going beyond her casting as a Spaniard — never seems to play to her true strengths. If I may be so bold, I never consider her much of an actress, but she’s at her most sublime playing shades of who she really was or at least what her reputation made her out to be.

I look at Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, even in its heightened state of reality, or Mogambo and The Night of The Iguana, and I feel like I know and understand Gardner a bit more intimately in and through her performances. Perhaps this is precisely the point, but in The Barefoot Contessa, we only know her due to the recollections of others.

For me, she is merely another portrait of inevitable rising and falling human tragedy. Unfortunately Hollywood has engendered many of those storylines. She feels more like the postscript to other people’s stories than the definitive protagonist of her own biography.

Because a Barefoot Contessa is such a stirring image, both dissonant and complex, well-worth eulogizing about. Sadly, it never harnesses all its assets, and when the credits roll it feels inconsequential at best and at worst disrespectful.

Such a woman deserved a better remembrance. If nothing else, it’s a sad commentary suggesting a woman’s legacy is made by the men who helped shape her and are consequently the ones who live to tell her story. The Pygmalions might live in regret, but it is their creations who are buried in the dirt. “Che Sara Sara” feels like too pat an answer for this tragic Cinderella story.

But, after all, this is Hollywood we’re talking about where it’s tempting to mold everyone into easily digestible, one-dimensional media icons ready for immediate consumption. For all their glamour and tabloid-worthy headlines, Rita, Lana, Linda, and Ava (as well as any other Hollywood casualty) were human beings too.

3.5/5 Stars

Pandora and The Flying Dutchman (1951): Love Across Time and Space

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Albert Lewin’s romantic fable opens in Esperanza on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. If the director is a generally unknown name, then Jack Cardiff might just as easily draw your attention with his distinct, intoxicating color tones. It’s true the picture opens with a wonderful shot perched from a bell tower. It’s sounding the alarm and, true to form, all the local populations are flooding the beach.

As we get closer, we see what has elicited such a rapid response: a boat beached on the shoreline. How it got there is really the whole reason for telling this story. Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) is a distinguished and learned fellow of linguistics and ancient antiquities who was an observer of these curious events.

However, he also proves an apt entry point into the story, which is fundamentally obscured from the outset. The erudite chap helps us out by recounting the details, how they happened from the beginning. Breaking with Hollywood convention, for some puzzling reason, he speaks directly to us, and it’s just as well. The movie is replete with these kinds of mystifying pieces of logic.

Whether it’s something in the water, the air, or just the script, characters float through scenes in this mesmerizing near-dream state. Nearly every male, in particular, orbits around a woman named Pandora (Ava Gardner) as if she is the Sun at the center of their solar system. Drunkards, race car drivers, artists, matadors — it’s all the same — and the gorgeous nightclub singer from the Carolinas seems to welcome their advances.

While Pandora Reynolds is not Ava Gardner exactly, it’s difficult not to see how the part plays on her own reputation — one of beauty, high times, and carousing with a penchant for drama. She famously moved to Spain to get away from Hollywood (and probably Frank Sinatra) only to make a life for herself abroad.

Again, this is not an exact representation of Gardner, but Pandora tosses men around like playthings. She gets emotional highs off other people’s passionate pronouncements of romance. She’s also an impertinent even impetus woman who measures love in the most reckless ways with a hedonistic comprehension.

One man (Marius Goring) turns into a blithering alcoholic falling over himself with jealousy. Another man (Nigel Patrick), madly in love with her, gladly pushes his most prized possession — a racing car — off a cliff into the oceans below as a show of devotion. She agrees to an impromptu marriage in its wake. He’s proved his undying commitment at her behest.

However, there is someone else, a Dutchman named Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), who is quite different. She is drawn to him; his ship is anchored off the coast and she swims toward it — the solitary light it casts in the night sky. For the first time, someone is unphased by her allure and the directness she goes about her affairs.

In fact, he somehow knows more about her than she knows about herself. He’s an artist painting her or at least painting Pandora and her box as she is a present embodiment of a creature who was incarnated eons before. In this way, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman evokes a broader scale by turning a belle, Pandora Reynolds, into a transcendent archetype. It trades worldly coincidence for the heights of mythology.

When Mason and Gardner witness each other for the first time — both garnering a striking closeup — we know we’re in for something ignited with the flames of passion.  Because they’re both the picture of attractive Hollywood A-Listers. Mason, of course, started out in the U.K. and this is a British production but he would hop the pond soon enough.

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From thenceforward, the movie is ruled by this uncanny lucidity bridging the years between encounters across time and space. Mason brings with him an aura of his own, and there’s a newfound mystical ecstasy around the frames.

Still, there is some semblance of reality. Pandora Reynolds is to be married. Another past suitor, a cocksure Matador (Mario Cabre), is quick and bold in his new professions of love. Whereas the Dutchman lets her go, the bullfighter tries as brashly as he can to pull her away from the man she is betrothed to. He probably believes rightfully so that she doesn’t truly love her fiancee. It’s more of a token agreement based on his devotion.

Because while the racecar driver is a miserable sot and probably oblivious to the kind of wavelength all the other characters seem to speak and react on, the Matador knows who his true rival is. It goes unspoken and yet he goes to the Dutchman to have it out.

In one of the most curious scenes splitting with any shred of reality and narrative logic, there is a confrontation, a murder, a nightmare — whatever you want to call it. And yet inexplicably the story wakes up the next morning as if nothing has happened.

James Mason and Ava Gardner and Geoffrey take their places at the bullfight only to watch the famed Matador get gored to death. The fates of love are not working in his favor.

If you’ll remember, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman opened with the beaching of a ship with bodies aboard. In the end, this hardly seems to matter. It is material only on this celestial sphere we call earth where living and breathing are of the utmost importance. This is a story not so much concerned with such mundane themes. Instead, it tackles love on this cosmic scale spanning the centuries even the millennia and brings people together like ships passing through the nights of time.

They conquer death — and we are led to believe even eternity — for the sake of their all-encompassing love. The grandiose metaphors are always arresting and make one’s heart swell with an appreciation for the throes of romance. Gardner and Mason aren’t a bad couple to hang our hopes on in this regard even if the narrative shards feel thin or at the very least discombobulating.

It’s more an exercise in Delphic style than it is riveting storytelling and yet there is something moderately powerful in working in ambiguous shades of dream-like reality, where players walk around in this heightened state bursting with almost obscene amounts of color. Romance is considered in these glorious arenas of speed racing and bullfighting and then stretches across great fathoms of time into the annals of history and myth itself. There’s nothing subtle about it, and visually it’s too gorgeous not to appreciate on that level alone.

3.5/5 Stars

The Night of The Iguana (1964) and The God-Shaped Hole

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It’s a Sunday morning in St. James Episcopal Church. The minister pulls his sermon from Proverbs 25:28: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” But there is an elephant in the room, an unspoken force coming between the shepherd and his sheep. He starts to stutter before he erupts in an indignant tirade lambasting his parishioners.

There’s something unsettling in seeing Richard Burton as a minister. I would have felt a similar unease with Peter Finch as a preacher (he was a surgeon in A Nun’s Story). Although it’s true, the similarly resonant actor, Richard Todd portrayed one of the most sincere clergymen ever in A Man Called Peter.

But Burton has the largest and most volatile personalities of all three.  So when he loses his train of thought during his Sunday sermon, perched from his pulpit, it’s not altogether unwarranted watching him implode on the spot. We expect as much.

It feels like Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon (Richard Burton) has inherited the lectern from Barabara Stanwyck in Miracle Women, though his conflict is more difficult to sort out. It’s as much about the watch-dog hypocrisy in his own church as it is his personal crises of conscience. We don’t know what his presumed sins are, but as the pews clear and he thunders down the aisles, he calls out the fleeing congregants, denouncing them thusly:

“You’ve turned your backs on the God of love and compassion and invented for yourselves this cruel, senile, delinquent who blames the world and all that he created for his own faults! Close your windows. Close your doors! Close your hearts – against the truth of our God! ”

Be that as it may and totally regardless of his innocence or guilt, the next moment we see Shannon, he’s fallen to a new low — taking a busload of Texas schoolteachers down through Mexico so he can serve as their tour guide past all the religious relics below the border.

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What a sorry figure he is — a tortured, broken, smarmy man just trying to get by. This portrayal is generally enhanced by the realization that Richard Burton, though he probably grew up in The Church of England, was at the very least a cultural atheist. Nor does he come off as a ministerial type. He was notorious for drinking like a fish. Meanwhile, his highly publicized off-screen tryst with Elizabeth Taylor was commanding the contemporary tabloid covers. It all fits into this conflicted, mercurial performance of his. Hardly likable but strangely compelling for all its wild instabilities.

James Garner is said to have turned down the role because “it was just too Tennessee Williams” for his taste. He’s not wrong and frankly as much as I love him to death, the part wouldn’t have fit. Burton can carry it off because his demons, whether real or imagined, are far more visible onscreen.

However, there is another pressing question. How in the world do you get the creative marriage of John Huston and Tennessee Williams? I’m not sure if you could call it a perfect match, but it’s ceaselessly interesting. It’s a new side of Mexico — in the fishing village of Puerto Vallarta — well after The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. Consequently, the setting seems a bit left-of-center for typical Williams fare even as the sordid dramatic content is much what we would expect. In the middle somewhere the two men meet.

The words from Proverbs are easily recalled as the disgraced Reverend finds himself being pursued by a loquacious young blonde (Sue Lyon continuing in her Lolita vein). She finds him easy to talk to and fascinating — his life is engaged with people’s souls and yet he’s young and virile. Charlotte takes a dip with him innocently enough and still notes she could never do this with the preacher back home in Texas.

It’s the first sign of hot coals. He wants nothing of her coquettish advances even as the acerbic chaperone Ms. Fellowes (Grayson Hall) watches him like a hawk — ruling over the girl with an iron fist of ascetic repression. It makes her a tiresome thorn in Shannon’s side; he’s about ready to go mad. Eventually, he does.

Having just about enough of their campfire songs and rigid drudgery, he shanghais the busload of priggish Baptist schoolteachers, taking them on a harrowing ride, bumping their way down the dusty backroads. He screeches to a halt, jumps out, rips out the distributor head, and proceeds to streak up the hillside with his suitcase. They might as well be in the middle of nowhere.

For the sake of this movie, they are not. The tropical Costa Verde hotel is hidden up in the forest overlooking the water, and it just happens to be run by an old friend of Shannon’s. Fred is dead, but his wife, the larger-than-life Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), is still running the place. She’s an earthy force to be reckoned with indebted to Gardner’s lively showing.

If not for her, Burton would probably steal the show, but he’s met with another gale storm of enduring cheerfulness and utter obstinance. Their impact is such you almost forget about Deborah Kerr. Sure enough, she appears on their doorstep as the peripatetic painter, Hannah Jelkes, who travels with her grandfather, a diminutive, 98-year-old poet.

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Though the other two dominate the screen, she quietly commands it. When Gardner and Burton get to shoving the drink cart at one another, it is Kerr who becomes their unofficial mediator. Because she is a voice of reason, an artist with a pensive gaze, and a surprisingly lucid perspective despite her meager lifestyle.

Later Charlotte bursts into Shannon’s room yet again causing him unwanted torment as she tries to get him to go away with her. She’s very good at stirring up men’s hearts and instigating mini scandals in the process. In another scene, a fistfight for her affections breaks out between the tour’s bus driver (Skip Ward), and some local boys replete with music, maracas, and stereotypical flourishes. Huston plays it for a laugh. It’s inconsequential if not altogether inane.

Because it is from the stage, The Night of The Iguana does seem to stall. Eventually, the bus leaves without Shannon and the second half of the story feels like an existential dialogue more than anything else. It could be a dead-end, though on the merit of our three established stars, it remains something intermittently though-provoking if not entirely compelling.

The curious thing is how the adversary melts away. True, the bus leaves with both his temptation and condemnation and yet he has pity even on his adversary. “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.” He recognizes her as another conflicted, constricted creature — a fellow Iguana tied up to a post.

With the bottom dropped out of his life, Shannon wants to swim to China, seemingly a handy euphemism for ending it all. He’s taken to the brink of his wits, lashing out at Maxine and anyone else who will avail him. It’s Kerr who rules the final act amid the paucity of moral rectitude. She perceives that his version of Golgotha is on a green hillside overlooking the water. His cross being strung up in a hammock on the verandah. In comparison, it seems like a fairly cushy alternative. She strips him down to who he really is.

Far from condemning him, Jelkes feels strangely sincere and genuine, particularly for Williams. She perceives that his problem revolves around “The need to believe in something or in someone — almost anyone — almost anything.” It’s Augstine or Pascal’s God-shaped hole rehashed. Likewise, she deflects his metaphors. She is not a bird but a human being. Nothing human disgusts her except if it’s unkind or violent. What extraordinary statements they are, and Kerr delivers them with a perfectly composed performance.

As each person tries to decipher their own religion or least some semblance of existential understanding, whether through legalism, drink, or sex, even cutting Iguana’s lose as a private act of personal Godship, she’s the one character who brings down the thoughts and words of the wise and makes them feel foolish.

For a film suffused with a great deal of religiosity, she’s startling unprepossessing. And yet in her words and in her humanity are the roots of something bountiful and beautiful in their very simplicity. It’s the kind of simplicity that can help loosen the Iguana from the hitching post, where we find out by sojourning, it’s possible to fill up the vacuum inside each and every one of us.

4/5 Stars

Seven Days in May (1964): A Twilight Zone America Strikes Close to Home

Sevendays_moviepThe opening images of Seven Days in May could have easily been pulled out of the headlines. A silent protest continues outside the White House gates with hosts of signs decrying the incumbent president or at the very least the state of his America.  We don’t quite know his egregious act although it’s made evident soon enough.

The scene at hand rapidly escalates to violence. There’s an immersive cinema-verite quality to the mob that breaks out between rival protesters. It instigates the film’s overt sense of technical style even if it’s not always straight to the point.

What becomes imperative to John Frankenheimer’s movie is how this showmanship frames the performances at its core because the movie is driven by its robust melange of characters. Fredric March is president Jordan Lyman. He’s getting middling reviews for headlining a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviets. This includes backlash from his highest-ranking military officials, and they’re not going to sit around while he lets America get annihilated.

It might seem like a slightly peculiar (if not entirely unfounded) reaction, seeing as in real life so many people would soon call for peace. Except in this world, the Cold War is literally reversed; now they have peace, and the outcome still remains the same. Everyone’s suspicious of what might really be going on behind the Iron Curtain.  If it’s not evident already, Seven Days in May effectively becomes an off-shoot of your typical Cold War doomsday drama.

Somehow it seems fitting Rod Serling adapted the script from the titular novel because this is a story planted in an inconspicuous and generally subtle near-future. It is its own Twilight Zone in that the logic feels slightly tweaked from what contemporary America was familiar with. At any rate, it’s concerned with an entirely different outcome than President Kennedy was currently faced with. What makes it truly startling is how much of a hop, skip, and a jump it feels from reality.

While it’s unfeasible to totally encapsulate public discourse during the early 1960s of the Kennedy administration, it’s often true movies act as an echo chamber of the times, reverberating the current issues in fundamentally different ways. I cannot speak to the anxieties Seven Days in May explicitly illustrates. But there are tinges of very real conditions, be it public protests and national marches (with the civil rights movement) and certainly the ongoing frozen-over politics of The Cold War.

Foremost among the detractors is General Scott (Burt Lancaster), who adamantly believes nuclear disarmament is a dubious peace — a sign of America’s weakness as they roll over and cave to Soviet interests — leaving the nation vulnerable. And it’s not an isolated opinion with close associates including Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) sharing his line of thinking.

However, even their own private allegiances dictate drastically different courses of action. There would not be a movie if “Jiggs” did not uncover General Scott’s covert operations. Namely, a garrison of men training at an undisclosed facility in El Paso. It’s the first of several red flags.

The Colonel immediately brings a line of communication straight to the top triggering mistrust and paranoia as the inner circle of the president is overtaken with consternation. Although he seems admittedly quick to sound the alarm, it is indicative of the times. Especially because their fears of a military plot to take over the government seem overwhelmingly well-founded. Such a coup d’etat on the oval office almost feels unthinkable in the modern age of America; maybe this fits a more Twilight Zone sense of our government structures.

Regardless, Lyman heeds the warning and sends one of his closest allies, old southern boy, Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien), to check out El Paso. Another oval office insider (Martin Basalm) ends up tracking down the one standout from the conspiracy — an admiral currently based out of Spain — who gives a signed statement of foreknowledge. Meanwhile, The Colonel is asked to continue in the uncomfortable position of an informer. The President must bide his time until he can back up the claims, lest he be seen as a raving madman by the general public.

While Lancaster might have the more high-profile post, it is Douglas who feels like the sinews holding the movie together, and rightfully so, because he was one of the major forces behind the film’s production. To his credit, it shows his ability to play a more restrained part — close to the vest — which still remains deeply impactful.

His scenes with Ava Gardner feel like a minor side note to this covert conspiracy of international importance, and yet it’s a tribute to both of them; it feels real and devastating in its own right. Their shared context means something.

Given the era, it’s hard not to consider the likes of Advise & Consent and then the more nuclear-oriented dramas like Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. And of course, John Frankenheimer had a well-documented pedigree with the political thriller from one of the most high-profile contenders, The Manchurian Candidate, and the criminally overlooked Seconds a few years down the road.

If we were to take his loose trilogy and compare it with Alan J. Pakula’s trifecta of thrillers from the 1970s, we can somewhat trace the evolution of the genre from one decade to the next.

As Lyman notes, the electorate is looking to elect a personal God for the duration, whether a McCarthy or a General Walker. They clamor for such a person to assuage their fears. The enemy is not other men but the nuclear age. We suspect infiltration and that the enemy is trying to blow us off this rock. Not until later would our own government be implicated, and then big business and our own systems be seen as a source of the problems.

Some of the best scenes take place in the privacy of the oval office because we sense the tension provided by the stakes. However, the whole drama is brought down to a manageable scale that can be quantified and understood through human relationships.

The intimate confrontation between March and Lancaster is probably a pinnacle of the storytelling, far more impactful in fact, than watching a full-scale conflict play out. Instead, it’s the whole movie hinging on one showdown between two incomparable forces, and what a showcase it is.

What makes the film smoke with legitimacy is how both men suggest, in their heart of hearts, that they are right and justified in what they are doing. And that’s what the great actors can do. Lancaster, in particular, is easy enough to cast as the power-hungry, possibly sleazy villain with a Napoleonic complex. But Lancaster’s ferocity is only matched by his steely delivery. There’s never a suggestion he is phoning in those lines of dialogue. They come off real and true and unflinching.

In the eleventh hour, there’s a sigh of relief and an equally perturbing sense of unease. We conveniently never find out if the peace treaties were a ploy by the Soviets. All we’ve done is live to fight another day. Tomorrow could signal oblivion. For this early in the decade, it feels surprisingly downbeat signifying the times certainly were a-changin’. The shift was inexorable.

4/5 Stars

*I wrote this review well before events at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. 

Our Man in Havana (1959) and Vacuums in The Atomic Age

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Because of the renewed partnership of Grahame Greene and director Carol Reed, it’s difficult not to feel an inclination to compare Our Man in Havana with The Third Man from a decade prior. If you wanted to go out on a limb, you could make the case the earlier film beget this film, at least in a cultural sense.

A post-war world divvied up between Allied powers has evolved into a Cold War with a constant chafing between crumbling imperialist footholds, rising revolutionaries, and the tustling of Western and Soviet superpowers out to establish their doctrines.

Our Man in Havana does not make any bold claims about its purposes. In fact, the movie even begins with a small caveat. Fidel Castro has already taken over Cuba — he even visited the on-location shoot — but it’s made clear this story took place before the Revolution. It’s not that those were more stable times or even simpler, but they were on the cusp of one of Cuba’s most cataclysmic changes.

Because even months after filming was complete, Castro would make his fateful decision to side with the Soviets, therefore pitting himself against the Americans (and probably the British) setting up the confrontation over the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Again, Our Man in Havana makes no claims at this kind of scope. Nevertheless, it’s important when we consider the implications of a story as ludicrous as this one. First off, Alec Guinness is the quintessential British vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana, Cuba.

He feels hopelessly out of place in this world on the edge of great cultural change. Jim Wormold is no earth-shattering, transatlantic figure even as his best friend is a fellow transplant, Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives). Our protagonist’s chipper teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) calls him “invincibly ignorant” and hardly in a critical sense. He’s not offended by the words either. Noting he’s never been a good Catholic. However, there’s something striking about her words pulled directly from Greene’s story.

Maybe it has to do with this kind of naivete — his good-natured, child-like perspective on the world — because the comedy flows from a man like him being embroiled in the international espionage of the Cold War. After all, it was an event in itself that was played off as a conflict between a religious and an areligious society. What it showed more conclusively were our universals blindspots and the shortcomings on either side.

Our Man in Havana purposefully establishes its world with a raised-eyebrow lampooning of the snooty British secret service represented by such equitable British gentlemen as Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson. They take to their roles splendidly.

In their care, the lowly Wormold, who never had a thought of espionage in any form, has become a vital part of the British spy network. As a result, Guinness becomes part secret agent, part science fiction writer, as he dreams up fanciful bits of intel to feed his stodgy superiors.

He even provides schematics and some of his most ingenious drawings inspired by The Hoover. Coincidentally, this was a plot partially recycled in a Hogan’s Heroes episode. To be fair, vacuums being mistakenly passed off as a superweapon is a memorable trope.

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The crucial pieces begin with Wormold. To be clear he doesn’t have an ounce of malintent in his body.  He knows no other way to assuage these chaps, and he wants to make them happy so he obliges as best as he knows how. The joke is how everything becomes blown out of proportion. Soon he’s joined by his own personal secretary (the always lovely Maureen O’Hara) and a radio operator named Rudy.

At the same time, a local tyrant, Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs feels slightly miscast in the part), has taken a particular interest in the vacuum salesman. First, because of some of his known associates and then because of his pretty daughter. He does his best to make her acquaintance.

As an outright thriller, it would be hopeless to expect Our Man in Havana to replicate the comparable successes of The Third Man, although this is probably the closest Carol Reed ever got. However, it also proves to be a forerunner or at least an early entry in the Bond-ignited spy film craze. Its comic sensibilities anchored by the always dry, forever congenial hapless wit of Alec Guinness are what make it stick.

One line delivered as dry as a Bond martini makes the claim that the new superweapon “Will make the H bomb conventional.” After all, who was ever afraid of something that suddenly loses all of its novelty? It becomes mundane. It’s lines like these that progressively make the farce feel all the more absurd, and with the passage of time, more incongruous and intriguing. Because as alluded to before, the Cold War was still very much in a state of flux in the Caribbean petri dish of Cuba. Soon it would be a battleground of the proxy wars for generations.

Likewise, Wormold’s fabrications are given credence by people in power such that white lies become established reality, incurring all these bizarre real-world consequences, sending him spinning in all directions. In one sequence he’s joined by Ms. Severn (O’Hara) as they look to reach out to one of his “contacts” — a local bellydancer. Guinness mucks it up as per usual only to bubblewrap his “agent” so they can take her out the back window and help her escape the authorities.

Then, you have such disparate situational hijinks as vacuum-cleaning conventions bookended by sudden murder. It reaches such a dizzying inflection point, there is no recourse but to fess up. Wormold is prepared for the consequences. The final joke comes in the utter lunacy of the conclusion. Powers that be would never dare admit how horribly they’ve botched the situation. That would never do!

In the end, since the flavor of Vienna and Cuba have their own particular sense of milieu and culture, I rarely found myself reverting back to The Third Man. There was one moment of commonality, however, right near the end of the movie. Once more it’s a funeral sequence. It’s a different sort of funeral where the factions, cross-sections, and localities are tangled and aligned in such a curious way.

And Guinness gets a postscript of sorts, returning to the British Isles wary of what he will return home to. His ever-vivacious daughter points out the window asking about the formidable castle down below; he notes the Tower of London and slumps down in his chair — a reminder of coming attractions. That’s where the crown stashes its most incorrigible traitors.

What makes The Spy Who Came In From The Cold such a standout Cold War film is how utterly merciless it is in its conclusions. There is no other way to look at it. Our Man from Havana vies for the completely opposite approach with an equally telling result.

We leave our hero in the cheeriest of outcomes only to question the state of the world and the structures around him. Really, they’re one and the same — leading the audience to question — whether through unsentimental drama or out-and-out farce, how are we supposed to make sense of the atomic age? It’s utterly nonsensical.

4/5 Stars

The Long Gray Line (1955) and Martin Maher

the long gray line 1955 Tyrone Power

There’s no other way to put it. The West Point imagery of The Long Gray Line is smart from the outset, and if nothing else, it instills this sense of admiration in the military sharpness of this storied institution. However, although this is a hagiography from John Ford, it feels more full-bodied than a typically blase biopic.

For one thing Tyrone Power, more so than an Eroll Flynn or some of the other earlier idols, proved his candor for meatier roles that might showcase what he could do. And between the likes of Nightmare Alley and Witness to the Prosecution is a picture that probably gets less fanfare written about it. His portrayal of Martin Maher, a lifelong West Point man, is both endearing and surprisingly comic even as his brogue is quick to take over the picture.

Because it is a biography as only John Ford could manage it. He employs broad humor from fisticuffs to falling plates to brawls in the manure pile while assembling all his surrogate screen family together — paying his usual homage to his Irish roots in the process. If none of this particularly piques your interest, it’s probably not for you. Because if we can say anything about The Long Gray Line, there’s no doubt about it. This is another quintessential John Ford picture.

West Point is fit for Ford because you have this underlying sense of tradition, honor, and camaraderie. The drills, men dressed in their uniforms, and the very architecture produces wonderful elements for Ford to exercise his glorious stationary wide shots. However, it’s not merely about composition but motion and people being galvanized together through shared experience, be it song, dance, or the rigors of military drills.

Moreover, it covers such an expansive time frame and yet it feels free from a lot of the typical narrative pitfalls. There’s a general sense it’s more content with the details and observations of life than stringing together a story of dramatic event after dramatic event each comprised of their own life-altering meaning.

Instead, what we see is totally fluid without needing to explain itself, and as we’re not dealing in huge historical events, but one man’s extraordinary life, this lassitude works quite well.

It considers time, acknowledges how life is ordered by time but is never a slave to it.  The guiding light is a meditation on tradition more than a pure devotion to realism. Mind you, there are a few winks with the camera to Pershing, Knute Rockne out on the football field, even Harry Carey Jr. portraying a young version of incumbent president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

We also methodically follow the train of Marty’s life from a “fresh of the boat” Irish immigrant to a bumbling waiter, an up-and-coming athletic coach, and then a corporal training up the youthful cadets and helping instill in them the pride and responsibility of their station.

The Long Gray Line Maureen O'Hara Tyrone Power

Soon after Marty’s arrival, Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara) arrives from the old country to serve as a cook for a local family. Ford delivers their so-called meet-cute in such a curious manner it could be out of a silent movie. For someone known for talking so passionately, O’Hara nary utters a word, instead, punting one of Marty’s boxing gloves while he trains up the lads in the art. Of course, he can’t help but keep sneaking glances back at her. It’s the beginning of a lifelong love story.

With John Wayne not attached to the picture (Ford wanted him), some of Ford’s other usual suspects get their due chance to shine. Ward Bond is a fitting embodiment of the gruff but effectual Master of the Sword, Captain Koehler, who invests in Marty. The classes of cadets are sprinkled with the likes of Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne. While Old Man Martin (Donald Crisp) arrives from Tipperary soon thereafter.

Although not a Ford regular, the cast includes Robert Francis, who was Harry Cohn’s answer to the new rebellious class of actors, the antithesis of James Dean and his ilk. Sadly Francis’s career was no less tragic. The rising actor only appeared in 4 movies before dying in a plane crash in 1955. This would prove to be his last project.

The last impression of The Long Gray Line suggests how Martin is as much an institution as the institution itself. In this regard, one’s memories are quickly drawn to Mr. Chips because Marty Maher feels like an analogous figure for the halls of West Point. Ford shows his knack for visual articulation in how he instills similar themes.

Instead of a deathbed pronouncement of a life well-lived, we see it all in action. Marty is older now, white-haired, and coming up on 50 years with the school. He has old friends doting over him, and new ones helping set up the Christmas tree. They put up the decorations and busy themselves in the kitchen

Again, it’s this constant motion and movement leading us toward greater communal well-being. Where we are reminded how much stronger we are together and how much comfort can be gleaned in time spent with others doing all manner of things.

Surely Ford could not have meant any of this and yet that’s the beauty of it because it all feels very organic in nature — organic to how we live as human beings — and bearing the truth of real life. It’s not just the momentary yuletide cheer that draws me back to It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s the community and Ford gives Marty a hero’s send-off full of poignancy (and “Auld Lang Syne”).

Although he’s come a long way from Tipperary, the verdant greens of the landscape feel like an immigrant’s reminiscence of The Quiet Man now on opposite shores, but no less resplendent. His roots and the aspects of his character and the family he holds dear are never far away.

Watching the ending, as a grand exhibition is put on in Marty’s honor, is spectacular unto itself. There is this gravitas similar to The Quiet Man or even the final parasol twirls of Rio Grande where we feel like we have taken part in something substantial just in studying the faces of our leads from their regal posts. They feel like giants on the screen.

After all, we’ve been privy to an entire lifetime and The Long Gray Line keeps on going. True, there’s a temptation to see this as a monotonous even a depressing thing — how time marches on and how there will always be new recruits to replace the old. People leave. Even Marty Martin was buried on the grounds after his 50 years of service.

However, in the hands of Ford, these genuine realities of life somehow have a definitive meaning that feels worthwhile and grand. It’s by no means naive in its perspective, and yet it seems to grasp the meaning, even the goodness, and the dignity, in such a place. It’s made up of the people as much as any kind of ideals.

What makes the film stick for me is how it is not a true cradle-to-grave epic nor is it a war picture. Ford had been in combat and had seen the Battle of Midway for goodness sakes. He wasn’t some wide-eyed idealist high on the glories of war. And yet his penchant is to still memorialize them in some manner through a lens he can understand, namely, the man, the myth, the legend: Marty Maher.

4/5 Stars

Mogambo (1953): John Ford Updates Red Dust

Mogambo

Whether it’s apocryphal or not the term “Mogambo” is purported to be the Swahili word for “passion,” although it’s difficult to know if this was only hearsay propagated by westerners (now including myself).

Regardless, it boasts an intriguing if altogether curious assemblage of talent. One would be remiss not to acknowledge John Ford as the story looks ripe for his kind of gripping panoramas. What’s lovely about the exterior shots is how it feels like a new prairie — a new landscape for Ford to photograph and bring his exemplary eye for portraiture and compositional space to.

Against this backdrop you have both people and animals living in this symbiotic give and take of aggression and nurturing — in some ways hearkening back to the primordial roots of Adam and Eve taking care of creatures in the Garden. Is it a stretch to wax lyrical in such a way? For another director, it’s quite possible, but because Ford was always the propagator of myth and parables it seems only fitting to use this language to describe the picture.

On a more pragmatic note, Mogambo is Red Dust transplanted to the African plains and maintaining the heavy influences of Western Imperialism. Though there is one fine concession, a “score” made up entirely of Congolese tribal music providing what feels like an authentic backbeat and rhythm to the movie. Otherwise, it’s a Hollywood Technicolor extravaganza in toto, albeit one delivered courtesy of Pappy Ford.

The plot isn’t of exceptional interest given the fact it already has antecedents in other movies, and it feels especially antiquated now. However, it’s also a double-edged sword as they don’t make any movies quite like this anymore, and so there’s a certain amount of novelty in the established panoply.

Vic Marsell (Clark Gable) is a big game hunter for pay in the modern world. Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly — a real firecracker of a woman (Ava Gardner) — winds up at their secluded outpost on the invitation of a maharajah. The main problem is the man picked up and left without bothering to tell her. She’s good and stranded.

Her attempts to make her way back to civilization don’t work so well, and their outpost becomes quite the mating ground with the arrival of a callow man of learning (Donald Sinden) and his wife (Grace Kelly). You need not be a soothsayer to wager a guess what might happen in this sweltering country.

Ava Garner’s no Harlow gold, and she doesn’t have to be. If it’s not plainly obvious, she’s Ava Garder, a cloying, sassy icon in her own right more than capable of finding her place among the animals and everyone else on the African Safari.

She’s a barrel of laughs to have around, and she has a quip for every occasion be it Secretary birds or (Bobby) Thompson’s Gazelles. Consequently, she also proves herself to be an incorrigible pot-stirrer and, thus, the film’s most enchanting asset.

While Gable still feels adequate doing the rounds as his prototypical gruff hero (over 20 years after his initial success), Gardner gives off this sensual aura of sport and irreverence. Grace Kelly has the naive sheen of a prim and proper anthropologist’s wife out for an adventure, which of course, she is.

Given our players and Ford’s manning of the romantic drama, it’s the broader themes paired with the laid-back sense of fun — reminiscent of a Howard Hawk’s picture — that become the most agreeable moments.  This is before it burns with the imminent flames of passion.

Every detail and accent of the environment seem to reinforce the romantic tensions creating these parallels between mating rituals out in the wild and their human equivalents. It’s an open-air Noah’s ark. Every creature is looking for its respective mate.

Ava Gardner pacing with her parasol joined by the Leopard pacing in its cage. A lion in the bush growling for a lioness. Hippos fighting in the local riverbed no doubt over a female companion. There are even polygamous males in the local communities with tribal premarital rituals to guarantee fidelity.

In lieu of a flood, Mogambo swipes the famous storm scene from Red Dust, but it’s punctuated by a singular moment of its own. It’s the first sign of electricity. Gable yanks off Grace Kelly’s headscarf and brings it about her neck with a forceful tug. Nothing else happens, but the animalistic fury and the passion is obvious, matching both the animals and the weather right outside the window.

There is another element we could consider and as I don’t like to spend too much time on these things, I only mention it in light of the film. Garble and Kelly famously had a romantic fling on set. Far from being a real-life love triangle — Gardner was still married to a devoted Frank Sinatra at the time — the younger starlet went to her elder for worldly counsel. And she provided it. If intuition proves correct, Gable wasn’t a far cry from the man he portrayed in this film, at least when women were concerned.

It’s no coincidence, the final act takes them out into the jungle in pursuit of gorillas, “the truest link between man and his primordial derivation,” although a local father might have a word or two to say on the origin of species — Man in particular. Soon thereafter, relationships get more complicated and they begin to splinter under pressure as per the expected conventions.

If I can make a summation, you come to Mogambo for how the milieu informs the romance and not the other way around. Length catches up with it in the end with the steaminess slowly burning off. What we are left with are the palette and the performances. It’s well nigh enough to make this movie spectacular entertainment. Fans of either Ford, Gable, Gardner, or Princess Grace should at least prick up their ears. Although, in the end, Ava steals the show.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Ava Gardner

We wanted to continue our ongoing series by highlighting a few of the best films of an actress we’ll be writing about in the next weeks. Ava Gardner was renowned throughout her career as one of the most alluring leading ladies in Hollywood.

And although she was linked romantically with everyone from Mickey Rooney to Frank Sinatra, and wound up plastered all over the tabloids, we want to acknowledge some of her most noteworthy films. Because she left an indelible mark on cinema. Let’s have a look at her career, shall we?

The Killers (1946)

This is the movie that put Ava Gardner on the map and rightfully so. She still remains one of the most deadly film noir sirens thanks to her turn opposite the tragic Swede played by Burt Lancaster. She casts a spell on him (and her audience), thereafter catching him deeper and deeper in her tantalizing web of destruction.

Pandora and The Flying Dutchman (1951)

With a flip of the coin, you could just as easily choose The Barefoot Contessa. However, thanks to the bewitching Technicolor of Jack Cardiff and this kind of fated love story collapsing time between Gardner and James Mason, it’s hard not to recommend Pandora. Part of the reason comes with how it plays with the mythology around Gardner’s own reputation. Regardless of the plot, it’s transfixing for totally capturing her supernal beauty.

Mogambo (1953)

It’s easy to think of this as the prototypical Gardner role. She’s gorgeous as per usual, but she also has spunk, running off her mouth and ably sparring with anyone who comes her way, be it man or beast (ie. Clark Gable). She flaunts herself all over the screen, cracks jokes, and leaves yet another lasting impression in John Ford’s picture.

The Night of The Iguana (1964)

She held her own in On The Beach and Seven Days in May with the likes of Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster, but it’s her part opposite Richard Burton here that shows how her persona evolved over time. She’s seen the world and gives the repressive film a vitality and richness that would be lacking otherwise.

Other Films: Bhowani Junction, Shadow of The Thin Man, Singapore, Show Boat, My Forbidden Past, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Band Wagon

Do you have your own favorite Gardner films that you would recommend to a first-time viewer?

Ikiru (1952): Loving and Living

ikiru takashi shimura

“This man bears a cross called cancer. He’s Christ.”

Ikiru is instantly a tale of dramatic irony as we see x-ray footage and an omniscient narrator tells us matter-of-factly the signs of cancer are already obvious. Our protagonist’s work life hits hard as he’s a public affairs section chief — dangerously close to my own title — thoroughly buried in the bureaucracy of Japan.

The great tragedy is how he’s never actually lived. He’s killing time, stamping documents with his inkan (official seal). I know it well because I sat at a desk in Japan watching others doing much the same. There were fewer teetering paper mountaintops around me, but the sentiment holds true. All his will and passion evaporated over the past 20 years. How this happened is made quite clear. We are once again privy to the dizzying circular bureaucracy that I’ve been subjected to in my own lifetime, from college campuses and also living abroad in Japan.

Even as he portrays a man of such a sorry constitution, there’s something instantly endearing about Takashi Shimura. In fact, he has been a friend of mine for quite some time. Aside from Toshiro Mifune and Setsuko Hara, he might be one of Japanese cinema’s most instantly recognizable icons. There’s a glint in his eyes of warmth that so quickly can turn to melancholy. It serves him well in Ikiru as do his distinguished features and graying hair. The dejectedness up his posture, the glumness in his being, verges on camp but it never loses its purpose.

The greatest revelation is the composition of the film itself in the hands of Akira Kurosawa and his editor Koichi Iwashita. I never recalled the editing of the picture, cutting and shifting between time periods. The delight in his son Mitsuo’s athletic prowess only for it to be crushed seconds later on the basepaths. Then, there was the boy’s appendix operation, an event he was not able to stay around for. It paints the relationship with his son, drifting through time, as the world spins around him, and Kurosawa follows the motion to find the heart of his picture.

As Watanabe sinks lower, taking an unprecedented leave from work, leaving all the underlings to surmise the reason, he meets a lowly fiction writer in a bar. The man’s occupation gives him a bit of license to wax philosophical, and he’s more forthcoming, more whimsical than we’re accustomed to coming across, especially in Japanese culture. He tries to empower the dying man to live it up.

After all,  greed is a virtue, especially greed in enjoying life, and so they take to the night scene with reckless abandon blowing Watanabe’s savings in the process. For a night he tries on the life of a profligate and a drunkard with middling results. There are light-up pinball machines, rowdy smoke-filled beer halls, and lively streets overrun by women of the night. They proceed to make their way to every conceivable bar imaginable. As the montage and music roll on and on, I couldn’t help but recall The Best Years of our Lives.

It was a celebration under very different circumstances. A soldier comes back from V-J Day ready to live it up. But much like Watanabe-san, Al (Fredric March) is looking to put off the inevitable for a bit longer. It’s a lot easier to face this heightened reality than the morning after. It’s a diversion tactic.

In one space the two merrymakers totter up the stairs as couples dance cheek to cheek. Their destination seems to be the lively piano bar jumping with tons of western-infused honky-tonk rhythm and blues. But Watanabe-san subsequently brings the mood to a standstill as the house stops to watch him sing a melody born out of the melancholy of the past — reminding us life is brief.

To this point, he feels pitiful almost laughable, laid prostrate by his very drunkenness, and gallivanting around the streets to the sidewalk symphony of honking taxi cabs and the distinct notes of “Bibbity Bobbity Boo.”

The morning after is what we expect. Not only a hangover but real-life sets in and the baggage that comes with it. He realizes his son and daughter-in-law are completely absent. Not only absent; they are indignant about his behavior. Because of course, they don’t understand. He hasn’t told them anything.

Screenshot 2020-04-03 at 65225 PM

Instead, he gravitates toward the youth of his garrulous young colleague (Miki Odagiri) bursting with untapped spunkiness. The key is how she makes up for his lack of both humor and energy. She somehow uplifts him with her very spirit — teaches him what it means to really live — what it is to have giggle fits. From the outside looking in, without his context, it looks like a sordid romance or some odd preoccupation. It’s more innocent than that.

He recounts how when he was a little kid, he was drowning in a pond; everything was going black as he writhed and thrashed around in the deep void around him. He felt the very same sensation when he found out about his illness — all alone in the world — his son as distant as his mother and father were when he was in the water. Full stop.

Ikiru and the act of living life are split into two distinct segments. Much of it is expounded upon after the inevitable happens and Watanabe-san has passed away. It’s one of the most abrupt deaths in film history. But that was never the point. Death was inevitable. What mattered is how he used the time before. How he lived it out. This tangles with the existential questions of life itself with all its subjectivities.

It sounds callous to say Kurosawa uses the motif, but what unfolds, in narrative terms, is like Rashomon meeting an abridged Citizen Kane. It’s artful and extraordinary taking the recollections of all the observers in his life to try and make sense of this man’s final hours.

The extended scene that follows almost plays out like a parable for me; it makes the dichotomy so apparent even as it expresses so much about these human beings. His fellow bureaucrats shed no tears at his wake. They have no gifts or kind words for him. And yet a host of working-class women, women who only knew him for a very few hours, anoint his burial with tears and burn incense for him.

The rich and well-to-do have no humility, no need, no appreciation because they’ve allowed themselves to be insulated — they believe they’ve brought every good thing on themselves. Revelation falls to those who are less fortunate, who have spent their whole lives impoverished and low. They can appreciate how a simple action by a simple man can be ripe with the kind of profound meaning these men sitting around idly by will never comprehend (much less believe).

It’s admittedly out of left-field, but one of the songs I was taken with last year was COIN’s infectious pop record “Cemetary.” Its most gutting line goes, ” Never made time for the family but he is the richest man in the cemetery.” The words terrify me to death, and they inform how I think about Ikiru — its purpose — the meaning of Mr. Watanabe-san’s final act of unswerving resolve.

It’s a warning and a cry, a pronunciation and a prayer for all those who are willing to pay it heed. What is life but to be lived out? There are only a finite amount of hours and days between “In the beginning” and “The end.” There’s no hitch on a hearse. All we can take away from this life is that which is given away. Ikiru must only be understood out of this profound paradox.

Because these men — these acquaintances sit on their duffs partaking of his family’s hospitality — trying as they might, to make sense of the mystery of his transformation. How could this be? What would cause a man to be so radically different even cavalier with both his time and his resources? They quibble about it incessantly as Watanabe-san’s actions making fools of the wise.

It’s really very simple. He says it himself even as he’s half doubled-over with pain, his voice on its last rasping legs, constantly being humiliated. “I can’t afford to hate people. I haven’t got that kind of time.” What if that was our mentality? When I look around me, who is my neighbor? It is anyone and everyone. Not just my friends but those ones who ridicule me — those ones who are hard to live with. What if spent less of my time criticizing and hating and more time loving and living. After all, aren’t they one and the same?

5/5 Stars

The Uninvited (1944) and Stella by Starlight

To place my cards on the table, next to the ouija boards and ghost catchers, I’m not always fond of haunted house movies because how many truly original iterations can you have out of one premise? Granted, there are lots of houses in the world, but how do you make each one stand out among the crowd? If it’s not obvious already I’m already originating from a place of skepticism and apathy. There you have it.

There is some good news. Although The Uninvited won’t exactly make a convert out of me, it is freed up by the fact it was the instigator of many of the archetypes the genre holds onto even to this day. Since this is a movie from the 1940s, the onus is not on the picture to be pop-out scary; instead, it uses its assets of music, mood, and atmosphere to project an inedible impression.

The brother-sister relationship between Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey on the screen is not so common in movies, and you could easily see them playing romantic partners in another movie. The novelty is agreeable enough as they gayly happen upon an old house in Cornwall that they are just thrilled to see since it reminds them of warm childhood memories.

So they walk in of their own accord — their yippy dog scurrying after a squirrel in a fairly spectacular bit of choreography — waltzing around the place just as if they own the place. They have no misgivings until they walk up to an eery room overlooking the cliffside. Just being there makes them heavy and already we have a portent of things to come.

As it turns out, the siblings get an opportunity to buy Windward House and at a real steal too. The owner, a somber commander named Beech (Donald Crisp), is more than happy to get rid of it even as his earnest granddaughter (Gail Russell) can’t bear to see the place leave their possession. You might say she has an attachment, even a compulsion to be there. The old man goes so far as to say the house is filled with malignity against the girl.

Still, brother and sister get their wish, moving in, setting up their housekeeper, and trying to get acclimated. What the sibling dynamic does tease out are other romantic interests. Roderick, for one, is fascinated by the “sleeping beauty magic” about the girl Stella, even as they got off on a bit of a wrong foot.

When they finally do make amends, there’s a conviviality born between them. As a musician and one-time music critic, he plays her quite the tribute: none other than “Stella by Starlight.” It’s an immortal tune, and it also, coincidentally, was composed by Victor Young just for this picture. It becomes a haunting song of lament and romance on par with the entrancing theme from Laura also released the same year. It’s yet another case of music having such a mesmerizing grip on a movie.

If the aura around Laura is one adaptable touchstone, another closely related one is the unnerving ambiance of Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier’s novel, turned into the well-remembered Hitchcock drama, played with this same spectral sense of the otherwordly. The house, Manderley, became a character in its own right, and the deceased first Mrs. De Winter effectively made it into her eternal haunt. As an embodiment of obsessive devotion, Mrs. Danvers played so forebodingly by Judith Anderson, knows few equals.

Much of The Uninvited is about set-up and even the delay tactics bringing us to the point of release. It rarely confronts us only inhabiting the corners and peripheries of the story and milking Charles Lang’s delicious cinematography for every drop of darkness it’s worth. It has a lot to offer.

For instance, there are wailing and moaning noises in the middle of the night. Word of some apparition. Smells of mimosa that flood the air on other occasions. At a later date, their housekeeper raves about a crawling mist upstairs. It’s all very peculiar.

Alan Napier comes into the story as a voice of refined observation — a local physician who partners with them. He effectively brings clarity to the situation by disclosing some of the local history. You see, Stella’s mother died on the edge of the cliffs many years before under tragic circumstances.

If anything, it gives the Fitzgeralds more reason to worry about Stella’s well-being. They somehow decide the best option is to face the spirit head-on with a seance. It’s taken for granted that something exists; this is not a total figment of their overactive imaginations.

And it’s true, something fills up the room. There’s a look in the girl’s eyes of terrible happiness, a possessed euphoria. She’s resolute throughout the entire film; if they destroy that house, they’ll be destroying her. In some unexplainable way, it is a sanctuary for her.

Ultimately, the captain sends her away to a sanitarium run by a local plaster saint, Miss Holloway. Her reputation proceeds her; she’s renowned around town for her charity and stately benevolence. However, up close and personal, it’s only too evident there’s something suspect about her. She obviously still harbors a deep affection for the deceased Mrs. Meredith, championing her memory for future generations. It lends the movie yet another level of subtext.

From thenceforward we deal in ghosts, twists of exposition, and jumps in internal logic that must be parsed through. I’m often not a stickler for plot details, but it felt like The Uninvited ultimately relies on them too much. There are some genuine instances of dread or at the very least intrigue, but I’m more enamored with the Lauras and Rebeccas of the world. Their mystery manages to linger over me.

With The Uninvited my greatest takeaway was “Stella by Starlight” and the starring turn for Gail Russell. She, of course, would remain a bright hopeful in Hollywood for a few more years until alcoholism crippled her career and her personal life. However, within the frames of this movie, she is still brimming with the buoyancy of youth. It’s a pleasure to see her in such a place. If nothing else, I consider this a victory. “Stella by Starlight” might as well be a eulogy to a shooting star that burned out far too quickly.

3.5/5 Stars