I Remember Mama (1948)

I-remember-mama-1948_poster.jpgInitially, I Remember Mama comes off underwhelmingly. It’s overlong, there’s little conflict, and some of the things the story spends time teasing out seem odd and inconsequential at best. Still, within that framework is a narrative that manages to be rewarding for its utter sincerity in depicting the life of one family–a family that feels foreign in some ways and oh so relatable in many others.

In this case, the Hanson’s are a family of Norwegian immigrants circa 1910 and the story gleaning inspiration from two earlier works features a post-war George Stevens at the helm with Irene Dunne anchoring the cast as the titular character.

And it’s true that the film is rather like a eulogy, memorializing this woman who was such a strong, stalwart example despite her unassuming ways. It is her daughter Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes) who looks back fondly at her mother, as she, now being an author sees her mama as a worthy protagonist for a story. Because, after all, this is their story, personal, individual, and unique.

The film feels anecdotal as much as it is serial, taking galvanizing moments, little snippets of that time and place and crafting a very distinct picture of what life was like back then. And that’s part of the simplistic beauty of I Remember Mama just like Marta Hanson herself.

In the opening moments, the adult Katrin recounts vividly the evenings at the dining room table where the whole family would gather around to count out the weekly expenses. They scrimp and squeak by with the meager funds at hand so mama never has to go to the bank. Meanwhile, the timid Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby) looks to marry the local undertaker and she calls on her sister to rein in their two other sisters Sigrid and Jenny who are both rather unfeeling.

Other happenings include the entrance of the boisterously quirky Uncle Chris who blusters his way into their lives initially frightening the children with his antics which secretly mask a generous spirit. Young Dagmar subsequently goes in for an operation and Mama goes to visit her breaking hospital protocol to keep a promise to her little girl. This instance reflects exactly the character that Marta imbues.

She also appreciates the influence of the families’ elderly lodger Mr. Hyde who reads each evening from his many editions of classic literature from Dickens and “Fenimore Kipling” as mama recounts erroneously. She sees this as a gift not only to herself but also her children, opening them up to thoughts, ideas, and even a little bit of culture that she can never give them. The fact that he leaves behind his books in lieu of rent receives only her gratitude while her sisters become puffed up with contempt.

Again and again, she exemplifies that almost all-knowing love of a parent. While never perfect, there’s an innate understanding of what is best for each one of her kids and she is continually willing to work and sacrifice for the sake of her family. To say what those things are would be precisely against the ethics of such a person as Mrs. Hanson and so I will refrain. See them for yourself and you too will understand as Katrin does what makes this woman great.

This is yet another feather in the cap of Irene Dunne, confirming my belief that she is one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. At times she’s almost unrecognizable hidden behind that accent and a certain amount of stern, straightforward, and still motherly charm. Look at her character and you see a woman of such a phenomenal stock and integrity.

Nicolas Musuracas’ crisp black & white photography lends an authenticity to the San Francisco street corners as well as the interiors helping to develop a healthy aura of nostalgia. And you get the sense, that perhaps George Stevens was intent on tapping into a bit of that old-fashioned goodness because the post-war world was a far different, far darker place. I Remember Mama is a film of tremendous virtue and inextinguishable light.

There’s also a bit of a personal connection to this film as well because half of my ancestors were, themselves, Norwegian immigrants. Although I doubt they came through San Francisco there are some familiar touchstones and it’s easy to imagine that these people pictured up on the screen could share the contours and backgrounds of my own kin from bygone generations. Wishful thinking perhaps but it’s also incredibly exciting and that’s part of the reason that I left this story feeling as if I gained something from it.

So Stevens and Dunne succeed excellently with what they set out to achieve providing a character study that is nuanced and still evocative in its pure depiction of the sacrificial love of a parent. Some would say that there’s no greater love than that.

4/5 Stars

 

Panic in the Streets (1950)

panic_in_the_streets_1950It disappoints me that I was not more taken with the material than I was but despite not being wholly engaged, there are still some fascinating aspects to Panic in the Streets. Though a somewhat simple picture, it seems possible that I might just need to give it a second viewing soon. Let’s begin with the reality.

This noir docudrama is somehow not as tense as some of Elia Kazan’s other works. In fact, it’s port locale anticipate the memorable atmosphere of On The Waterfront, although it’s hard to stand up to such a revered classic. Still, the film does have its own appeals.

It begins with a gritty setting full of grungy character and New Orleans charm that continues the trend of post-war films taking the movie cameras to the streets and to the people who actually dwell there. In this way, the film shares some similarities to The Naked City.

The acting talent is also a wonderful strength with Richard Widmark playing our lead, Lt. Commander Clint Reed, this time on the right side of the law as a Naval Doctor trying to contain an outbreak of pneumonic plague before it spreads exponentially. His compatriot is played by the always enjoyable Paul Douglas a world-wearied police captain who must grin and bear joining forces with Reed.

The film is full of seedy undesirables and the most important and memorable one is Jack Palance (in his screen debut) showing off his tough as nails personality that was certainly no fluke. His right hand blubbering crony is the equally conniving Zero Mostel and together they make a slimy pair for the police to close in on. Because it’s one of their associates who ends up murdered but it’s only in the coroner’s office where they find out he was infected with something fierce.

This sets the sirens going off in Reed’s head and while not an alarmist, he wants everyone to consider the gravity of the situation. He has some trouble working with the police but he also seems to understand that this is not an isolated issue but it can affect his family — his wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and his precocious boy (Tommy Rettig). But not just his immediate circle, but his entire community. And so he and Captain Warren race against the clock to not only to prevent an epidemic but solve a crime and apprehend the perpetrators. So this is undoubtedly your typical police procedural enlivened by New Orleans but there are also different layers to what is going on that have broader implications.

For instance, what do you tell the press? Do you keep it under wraps or let them shout it from the rooftops so the criminals get away scotch free – like rats fleeing the scene of the crime? Are you just looking for the murderers or are you considering the entire community at large? These questions deserve to be parsed through more thoroughly than I possibly can. So while Panic in the Streets is more methodical than a tense drama there are some very good things to it. Namely its location, its cast, and the universal nature of its central conflict.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo_1958_trailer_embrace“The Greatest Film of All Time.” It certainly seems like an arbitrary title, but if nothing else it gives film aficionados something to discuss. And that’s what Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is now being called for many reasons. Rather than join the debate, I wish to take a few moments to acknowledge what makes the film itself special.

On the surface, shall we say the first viewing, Vertigo is thoroughly enjoyable as a psychological thriller and mystery. The title sequence is haunting with an eye staring back at us from behind the credits and as an audience we are quickly thrown into the action, watching the opening chase scene unfold. In only a few moments one man is dead and the other John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) now has debilitating vertigo that takes him off the police force. We never learn why they were chasing a man on the rooftops. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a time later with his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that we first see Scottie after the harrowing events. She obviously cares deeply for him, and he sees her simply as a good friend so we can undoubtedly expect her to be in the film more.

Then, rather mysteriously, an old school acquaintance named Elster (Tom Helmore) calls up Ferguson, hoping to get him to shadow his wife. It has nothing to do with infidelity, but fear, because the worried husband believes that something is wrong with his wife Madeleine. She disappears for hours at a time and is barely conscious half the time. He would describe her as possessed and Scottie is noticeably skeptical. But he relents and agrees to tail her sending himself spinning headlong into a mystery that will become his obsession.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_NovakHe gets to know Madeleine by following her, all throughout the streets of San Francisco, and much like Rear Window, this part of the film becomes a repetition of scenes followed by the reactions of Stewart. Hitchcock’s background in silents is seemingly at work here as he lets the images and score of Bernard Hermann take center stage along with Stewart’s expressions. We end up all over, from a flower stand to a cemetery, an art museum, and an old hotel. Madeleine goes from place to place like a solemn specter and we watch in expectation. Something must happen.

In an instant, she leaps into the water near the Golden Gate to commit suicide and that’s when Scottie swoops in to rescue her. He can’t lose her now because by this point he’s entranced by the icy blond who he only knows from a distance. And so their relationship progresses if you can call it that. They wander together and Madeleine shares her nightmares with Scottie.

The two of them head to San Juan Bautista and that’s when the nightmares become a reality for both of them. It’s devastating to Scottie, and the second phase of the film begins. He’s inconsolable and madly in love with this girl he cannot have. She’s hardly real. But then wandering the streets listlessly he spies Judy Barton, who coincidentally looks strikingly like Madeleine.

So he does the only thing that he can think of, meet her and try to turn into the girl he so desires. His obsessions are the only things that drive him, that and the haunting memories. Finally, he figures out the mystery, but the swirling cycle continues as he goes back to San Juan Bautista. A cruel twist of deja vu rears it’s ugly head once more.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointHitchcock always was one for visual showmanship and it reveals itself whether it’s the parallel symbolism that Scottie notes in the painting of Carlotta Valdes or the out-of-body dream sequence that he suffers through. There’s also the dizzying zoom creating the so-called Vertigo Effect whenever Stewart looks down from a great height. These are obvious visual flourishes, but it’s almost more interesting to watch our main characters walk the streets of San Francisco, especially since there are so many real landmarks to work with (ie. Golden Gate, Mission San Juan Bautista, Muir Woods National Monument, and the Coit Tower among others). There’s something mesmerizing and trance-like about all these scenes that’s difficult to discount. It pulls us in as an audience. We want to see more. Bernard Hermann’s score is, of course, noteworthy and at its core, there is a constant disconcerting quality. It is strangely majestic and beautiful, but it pounds away menacingly. And it spirals in and out with the same sounds, the same crescendos. You think you would get sick of it, but strangely enough, you don’t. It enraptures us.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_embrace_2Then there are the players. Kim Novak has the dual role as Madeleine and Judy. She carries out both with the needed precision. Elster’s wife is elegantly beautiful, aloof and ethereal in a way that makes her the obvious fantasy of Stewart’s character. When she casts a sidelong glance or stares up at Stewart there is a faraway quality in her eyes. The clothes. The hair. How she talks. Even how she carries herself. She is spellbinding, otherworldly, and almost unattainable in all ways. Then there’s Judy, the epitome of a Midwestern girl. Pretty but not elegant. Smart but not cultured. But she falls for Ferguson as he falls for an impossible ideal.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Stewart_on_a_laddderJames Stewart is an important piece in this film because it’s his character’s obsession that drives the plot. His instabilities, his desires, his anguish, his vertigo. It has been said that Stewart himself is a stand-in for Hitchcock and the own inner workings of the director’s being. His obsession and lusts. That may be true but something else that could be inferred is that Stewart is really a stand-in for all of us. After all, there was no greater every man than him, but there also is a universal quality to the baggage weighing on his being. Stewart’s every man is certainly being subverted, or could it be he is becoming a more accurate depiction of everyone? It’s a scary thought but what is buried inside of us? What are our own fantasies, obsessions, and lusts that lurk under the surface? Let me put it a different way.

For Stewart, he has three prominent women in his life. There’s the fantasy in Madeleine, the perfect ideal, who will ultimately ruin his life because intimacy with her is impossible. There’s Judy who has a passionate love for him, but it seems complicated in so many ways. She’s trying to measure up to his standards. The ideals and fantasies he has created poison what they could have. Then, there’s Midge who is practical, funny, and also completely devoted to Scottie. If his head were on straight he would go right to her because he would undoubtedly find the most satisfaction in that relationship, but his obsessions have undermined that.

There was an alternate ending of the film which showed Scottie with Midge once more, listening on the radio about Elster’s capture. The ending that was kept is more powerful, not because Elster got away scotch free, but because we don’t see Midge again. She all but disappears by the end of the film and with her goes all that could have been decent and good about reality for Scottie. He gets so caught up in fantasy and that tears his life apart. He’s literally spiraling in a web of never-ending hellish obsession.  Who knows what becomes of him? We can only guess.

5/5 Stars

Fourteen Hours (1951)

fourteenhours1Fourteen Hours is a taut little thriller, based on real circumstances that occurred in New York in 1938. The film opens with a young man standing on the ledge of a tall hotel in New York City. An unsuspecting waiter happens upon him and a traffic cop (Paul Douglas) spies him from the street below. All of a sudden, a mundane day gets a little more exciting for all the wrong reasons.

Henry Hathaway’s film has the kind of self-contained drama of a modern film like Phone Booth (2002) and a media frenzy that is in some ways similar to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). Really when you break it down it’s essentially about two men. Robert Cosick (Richard Baseheart) is the despondent and disturbed man tottering on the edge of destruction. He needs a friend. He needs guidance. The rapport built between him and Charlie Dunnigan (Douglas) is what keeps him where he is.

Outside of this main dynamic, we have a lot of smaller events all happening at once. The gruff deputy chief Moskar (Howard Da Silva) tries to work on the inside of the hotel to get the man indoors. A psychiatrist with a hypnotic stair (Martin Gabel) tries to divvy out advice to Dunnigan and others. Meanwhile, Robert’s histrionic mother (Agnes Moorhead) and his plain-speaking father both make appearances, but to no avail. They even finally track down his girl Virginia (Barbara Bel Geddes) in the hopes that she can get him down. All the while the journalists scrounge around for a good story that they can feed to their papers because this is news!

fourteenhours3Down in the streets below young people (Debra Paget and Jefferey Hunter) look up wishing they could do something. The cynical cabbies decide to make a wager on when the man will jump since they aren’t getting any more business for the time being. Even Grace Kelly makes an appearance (her debut), as a young wife who is about to go through with her divorce. But the man on the ledge flusters her and she and her husband have a happy ending.

Hour after hour drags on as Dunnigan continues to work on Robert to get him to come in. He loses his temper once, converses about fishing for floppers, and talks fondly about his wife. By far Paul Douglas is the standout because he has such a genial quality that makes his new found friend, and the audience, trust him. He’s a good egg as they say, and at the end of the day, he gets to walk off with his wife and son after a good days work.

I think it’s true that the film was remade as Man on the Ledge, but I doubt that I would ever want to see it after this film. Don’t get me wrong, it crawls a little bit in the middle, but the combination of this human drama and the plethora of characters lent itself to a generally interesting tale. Also, it’s never static visually. Hathaway gives us a lot to look at. I will admit that several of the storylines were flimsy and unnecessary, but it was still fun to see Grace Kelly for at least a few moments.

3.5/5 Stars

Caught (1949)

Caught_(1949_film)Max Ophul’s Caught is an interesting mix of soap opera drama and dark, brooding noir. It follows aspiring model Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), who is obsessed with improving herself through charm school, landing a modeling job, and finding a rich husband. She’s not the only one in a world of young pretty girls who thinks money makes the world go round.

She’s a little bit different than the others, but they have slowly made her buy into the whole system. Then, one night she gets what all these gold digging girls could only dream of, she meets the filthy rich and oddly-named Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and it’s all quite by accident.

Soon more to prove a point than for love, Smith marries Leonora, and she tries her best to love him like a good wife. But he’s too busy and too difficult to get close to. She spends all her days stuck at home and unhappy with Smith’s hired aide Franzi Kartos (Curt Bois). Leonora realizes she needs something else and heads out to get a job away from Smith and his money.

The first opportunity she gets is as a receptionist for the doctor’s office of a kindly young pediatrician and his older colleague across the hall (Frank Ferguson). He pegs her as an odd applicant from the beginning but allows her to come on and work. Once she commits, Leonora proves to be a hard worker and she and Dr. Quinada (James Mason) hit it off, though he still finds her peculiar.

Once more, Lcaught2eonora tries to patch things up with Ohlrig who begs her to come back home, which she does. Because she wants their marriage to still work out. However, Leonora also gets some big news from a doctor that complicates the situation. She truly is caught. She cannot leave Smith due to their marriage and other difficulties while her affections truly lie with kindly Dr. Quinada who feels the same.

Ultimately, there has to be a showdown and so there is. Leonora has to make her decision. Then Smith has one of his angina attacks and she doesn’t want to help him. It causes her increased guilt and ensuing complications. But Ohlrig doesn’t die and Leonora finally has the future she wants with Quinada.

caught3Max Ophul’s was always a master with these types of melodramas and his trademark dolly shots are as prevalent as ever, developing some of the scenes wonderfully. It becomes more than a plot but a visual presentation too, and the shots often are augmented by how he moves in and about a room.  Robert Ryan steps into the villainous role easily and James Mason is a surprisingly amiable good guy. Also, though his role is small, Frank Ferguson is nonetheless pivotal and thoroughly enjoyable as a fatherly figure. Of course, Barbara Bel Geddes is a worthy protagonist, because she is ultimately the one trapped between her two male counterparts and she is the one who goes through the most mental torment with Ohlrig potentially being close behind.

Above all, Caught is a timeless indictment not simply of corrupt capitalism but a generally misguided philosophy that money is everything. Quinada has the best approach, realizing that money is necessary, but it can never buy you happiness or remedy your relationships. Smith never figures that out and it is difficult for Leonora to leave that worldview completely behind — as it is for many of us.

4/5 Stars