The Sea Wolf (1941)

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“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” – John Milton in Paradise Lost

Though some noir film layered in London fog is probably up for contention, otherwise, there’s arguably no movie murkier than this atmospheric sea-faring delight from Michael Curtiz. But what puts it above and beyond some of its contemporaries, especially swashbucklers like a Black Swan, has to do with a variability and surprising depth of characterization for what feels like such a minor vehicle.

From the framework of Jack London’s novel, screenwriter Robert Rossen has cleverly repurposed the material and made it thoroughly well-suited for the cast at hand, expanding the roles for his stars. For most of its running time, in fact, the story is aboard the ominously named vessel, “The Ghost,” while maintaining an unwavering level of intensity.

Certainly the aforementioned climate plays into it because it can exude a level of impending menace. Still, you can only get so far on that. There needs to be legitimate emotional resonance and some amount of real even complex conflict at the core if a glorified chamber piece like this is to stay afloat. Thankfully, due to its characters, it does. At any rate, we are provided several fascinating figures to try and comprehend.

John Garfield is one of them, a fiery sailor named George Leach who is on the run and he doesn’t care where he ends up. In his case, he winds up a lowly cabin boy. Again, he doesn’t care.  Meanwhile, Ida Lupino is escaped from a woman’s reformatory and seeks the corroboration of a fiction writer named (van Weyden) as it ends up, their voyage is ill-fated following a collision that sets off a deluge of water leaving them hopelessly shipwrecked.

In the aftermath, they are picked up by the schooner “The Ghost,”  its tyrannical captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) leading a crew of no-good and hard-bitten seamen. Barry Fitzgerald excites as the knife-toting cook who’s as ornery as you’ve ever seen the plucky Irishman. The writer is brought on as cabin boy given the rude awakening that the captain has no designs to drop him off onshore. His vocation and unwavering monotone are perfect for conveying this impartial point of view for the benefit of the audience. Meanwhile, John Garfield embittered with a chip on his shoulder is forced to take on harder labor and his anger smolders against everyone.

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The girl, Ms. Webster (Lupino) is deathly sick and the swacked and constantly unstable doctor (Gene Lockhart) seems to be of little help. His nerves as a physician look completely shot. By some miracle, he’s able to get sober enough to nurse the lady back to health, of course, when she makes her first public appearance looking to be the picture of propriety, the seafaring men are quick to see through her. She’s another unwanted sea rat just like all of them.

It’s plain to see she’s not about to earn any favors and the same goes for the other newly acquired deckhands. They have few rights as the sea captain runs the ship with a dictatorial hand. In all affairs he controls everything and he can be a ruthless taskmaster with his boys carrying out his every order with a rowdy mania, even turning against their own when given a chance.

However, although Wolf is a tough man, he nevertheless has an inscrutable side well-read in Milton and knowing a past of innumerable hardship. It’s these very traits that make van Weyden crucial as someone who is able to get closer than the others in order to try and tease out who Larsen really is.

A mass of contradictions, with a brain and a need for dignity in a harsh world but he also has a vengeful brother hanging over him, avowing to blow him to smithereens. If there is any regret in Larsen, he’s resolutely set his course and rarely looks back, making sure to maintain his supremacy over his men in all circumstances. His philosophy is purely self-serving.

But even he begins to crack. The film is laden with claustrophobic and seasick-inducing interiors depicting living hell on the waves with Larsen lording over it with an iron fist. Of course, with mutiny afoot instigated by Leach, finally able to exercise his lust for authority, there’s bound to be drama, even as he begins to carry a torch for Ruth.

Because later he, Ms. Webster, and van Weyden look to escape only to have their provisions sabotaged by Larsen, and “The Ghost” is ultimately ambushed by its mortal enemy. The hourglass is running out. But even as the captain goes down with his ship, a near pitiful figure now, he looks to take as many others down with him as he can. In opposition to such selfishness, a contrasting force of sacrifice is called for.

4/5 Stars

Note: The cut I watched was the shortened 1947 cut. The restored cut was reissued in 2017 at its full length of 1 hour and 40 minutes. This was the theatrical cut before it was edited to fit on a double bill with another Curtiz picture The Sea Hawk (1941).

 

Review: The Quiet Man (1952)

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When you think of the combination of John Ford and John Wayne, it’s only normal to conjure up the quintessential western pairing. It’s true there are so many films that we could pay a nod to like Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), etc.

Thus, when considering such company The Quiet Man always felt like an obvious outlier and yet I’ve always been taken with it for those exact reasons. John Ford was an Irishman through and through. He made The Informer in 1935 and though How Green was my Valley (1941) was based around a Welsh family it might as well be considered an analogous world.

But with this picture, we see Ford’s final venture into such a country — the homeland of his people and there’s certainly an idealized quality to it. Where the Catholics priests (Ward Bond) pretend to be Protestants when the local magistrate comes through the village to inspect the parish. Where the colorful figures of the village, despite small stature, are painted with bright and jovial strokes that nevertheless seem larger than life. There’s nothing lackluster about them and no harm in that.

Stereotypically wrought or dated by today’s standards you might say but Ford is undoubtedly paying a final homage to the lore of his ancestors. A history that stretches further back than many of us might be able to comprehend. There’s a surprising affection that courses through the picture. If not simply in the people than certainly through the capturing of scenery as well.

Exterior sets aside, the on-location imagery is on par with John Ford’s most  resplendent scenes from Monument Valley. There couldn’t be a sharper contrast either in Winston Hoch’s photography of rolling hills with the arid plains that define most of the indelible visuals from Utah. Again, that makes them all the more resonate, the true epitome of lush mise en scene.

Because The Quiet Man is a film that is continually blessed by a big screen where the Technicolor tones overwhelm you with their fervent grandeur only surpassed by the feisty fire bursting forth from Maureen O’Hara. Ireland has never looked more gorgeous and the same can be said of the bonniest lass I did ever lay eyes on clothed in red and blue. Victor Young’s score proves to run the paradoxical gambit between utter serenity and majesty with playful dips to match the film’s own backbreaking brand of broad comedy.

Sean Thorton (John Wayne) makes the pilgrimage to the little community of Innisfree intent on buying back his childhood home and finding himself a local bride. He’s reticent as to why exactly he’s decided to return. But regardless, the yank is not accustomed to the way the world works in the old country. He is in need of some sagely council.

Sean’s main guide is the bright-eyed leprechaun in human form (Barry Fitzgerald) who becomes his matchmaker, the liaison between him the and barrel-chested bully Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Though Sean is taken with the man’s sister, he can’t call on her until the squire gives his consent and a squabble over some real estate makes their relationship tenuous at best.

There are certain sensibilities. Certain customs that are unspoken law of the land. Life moves a little slower too.  But when it does move it rolls down the roadways with a blistering pace of good-natured thunder. Local horse races become the arena for men to exercise their prowess and win the favor of the local ladies through feats of athleticism leading to a bonnet-lined finish.

Sean finally gets some consent and the courtship begins though Flynn constantly warns against any amount of “Paddy Fingers.” And they get on well enough until Mary Kate, being the proud woman that she is, demands her husband collect the dowery that is rightfully hers. He could care less about the money or her hulking brother and yet he declines. She figures him a coward and not to be touted as such, he finally relents, ready to have it out with his rival onece and for all.

To make his point, he deals with both of them setting up The Quiet Man’s exemplary showdown. It’s a final fist-throwing wallop fest that’s all spectacle. The whole town runs rampant across the countryside as the two men (Wayne and McLaglen) wail on each other. Back and forth. One decked. The other pushed, kicked or whacked. They’re on the receiving end of a face full of water and start it all over again. In the end, its all in good fun and that’s how this movie would have it. There’s little need to take it too seriously. The pure enjoyment factor is one of its most laudable virtues.

It’s also the stuff of legend what Maureen O’Hara was coaxed by her director to whisper to Duke in those last moments. The words are said michievously and his face lights up with sheer incredulity. For me, it doesn’t matter because his expression says it all and the way she playfully leads him off into the distance, enticing him to follow her across the row of stones, is so candid.

The chemistry between them is as real as anything I’ve ever seen on screen. He whips her around and drags her along, gives her a slap, and yet she’s got fire enough to face off against him and give him a run for his money. She keeps him on his toes and he goes to great lengths just to be with her. The Quiet Man works because that central dynamic is robust and still equally passionate. Their natural affinity for one another cannot be counterfeit. It’s too sincere. It’s what made them so iconic together and it’s part of what made John Ford’s The Quiet Man an idiosyncratic and still thoroughly luxuriant classic.

5/5 Stars

Review: Bringing up Baby (1938)


bringingup2“Our relationship has been a series of misadventures from beginning to end, so if you don’t mind, I’ll see Mr. Peabody alone and unarmed.” –
David Huxley

Bringing up Baby is really and truly one of a kind, almost headache-inducing with its sure energy and dizzying with its scatterbrained tracks, but nonetheless it is a screwball masterpiece. From Hollywood master Howard Hawks comes arguably one of his greatest films, boasting the rat-ta-tat-tat of some killer dialogue, some fantastic comedic sequences, and a number of memorable performances.  Honestly, if I learned anything from this film, you can’t watch it just once, because you’re bound to get bowled over, and afterward you probably won’t realize half of what you saw. For instance, there’s so much talking you hardly realize that there’s not much of a score.

Young Katharine Hepburn is at her most radiant and almost smothering with her constant barrage of words. You either love her or hate her. There’s no way to ignore her performance here because it’s completely out there. It’s hard to believe she was a novice when she came into comedy. There’s no inhibition whatsoever. Not in the least.

Cary Grant is the bookish paleontologist who is content with constructing the skeleton of his prized Brontosaurus and then marrying his admiring, no-nonsense sweetheart Ms. Swallow. It sounds like a pleasant albeit mundane lot in life. In an effort to gather a $1 million in funding, he goes out to the golf course ready to do a little business on the side with Mr. Peabody. That’s when hell strikes in the form of one scatterbrained lady extraordinaire Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). First, she swipes his golf ball (quite certain it is her’s), then she batters up his car (sure it is her’s again), and to top it all off she causes him to sit on his hat when they cross paths again at a club. Poor Dr. Huxley doesn’t know what’s hit him. He just wants to get away from her and all the fury that comes in her wake.

Good luck with that Cary, because she’s a force of nature! She misunderstands everything, and he gets endlessly caught in her web of miscommunication.  Susan initially roped him into coming along with her, thinking he was a zoologist who could help her take care of “Baby.” Of course, it turns out to be a tame leopard that they must get to her aunt’s home out in Connecticut (Only in a screwball comedy). By now he’s bothered. She’s falling in love.

So she does what any resourceful girl would. She keeps him occupied. First, she swipes his clothes. Then the dog George runs off with his prized possession, the intercostal clavicle. Initially, they want to get rid of the leopard. Then they want to keep it. Auntie comes home along with her gentleman friend Major Horace Applegate. A not so friendly leopard escapes from a carnival. The police get involved led by their bumbling leader Constable Slocum.

bringingup1It’s a doozy of a masquerade and most everything and everyone is utterly confused. It’s as if everything that enters the world of Susan Vance is further complicated. To her, it’s simply a day in the life and Huxley begins as an outsider, but despite all the madness, he becomes accustomed to it.  Running after the dog, getting soaking wet, tripping, falling, fending off a leopard, getting thrown into the clink. Dr. Huxley realizes that he’s never been happier and it ends pretty much as it began. Never a dull moment.

This has to be one of Hepburn’s greatest performances earlier in her career because she has everyone in a tizzy. Although he’s literally getting the run around from Hepburn, Grant is her perfect comedic foil. He dons the glasses at first and carries the sensibility that goes with them. However, he is equally equipped to go without them as a scatterbrained gentleman ready for all the pratfalls, quips, and escapades that ensue. And they are surrounded by a solid set of character actors including a drunken Barry Fitzgerald, the easily distracted Walter Catlett, the big game aficionado Charles Ruggles, and the peppy dog Asta (of Thin Man fame) among others.

Howard Hawks once said that “a good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes.” In Bringing up Baby some of the memorable moments include the fateful meet cute at the golf course, the chuckle-worthy encounter at the club, and of course the sequence leading up to jail. But it’s also the little comedic moments wedged in between. Maybe Hepburn’s parked in front of a fire hydrant and trying to pull the wool over the policeman’s eyes. Or perhaps Grant dons the only piece of clothing, a frilly bathrobe, and is forced to answer the front door. It’s utterly absurd. It’s become classic and it shows the ability of Hawks behind the camera to make the action flow so organically.

It’s amazing that this film was a flop, Hepburn was labeled “Box Office Poison” by this point, and Cary Grant had yet to become an established star. Oh, how things changed. Because this film, in a sense, was the beginning of something truly wonderful. When two of the greatest stars aligned with one of the great directors.

5/5 Stars

Union Station (1950)

unionstation1Although it features the pairing of William Holden and Nancy Olsen, Union Station certainly is no Sunset Boulevard, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a modest procedural of 80 minutes, but it has a gritty realism that is rather reminiscent of Pickup on South Street (1953) or The Naked City (1947). This is ironic since it’s hardly believable and yet it still ropes us in. The story goes something like this.

A young woman  (Olsen) says goodbye to a blind friend and later after she boards a train, she sees two suspicious men board the same car as her. At the final destination of Union Station, she goes to lead cop Willie Calhoun (Holden) who uses his network of plainclothesman to investigate and tail the men. As it turns out, the blind girl has been kidnapped and a ransom is put up for her at $100,000. Her father is understandably desperate to get her back and does whatever he is relayed to do. He remains in contact with Calhoun and the Inspector named Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald) who resolve to get his daughter back and apprehend the perpetrator.

However, the man they are dealing with has been around the block a few times, and he is well acquainted with Union Station. Thus, the station becomes the main point of interest in the film evolving from less of a game of cat and mouse to a chess match. Men are tailed aboard trains, in terminals and everywhere else. When one man leaves another takes his place, eyes are always watching and the beauty of it all is you can never tell who is a policeman and who is not in the veritable mass of humanity. But it goes the other way too.

The ransom is ultimately set to go down at Union Station and just in the nick of time, Calhoun catches a break. All that’s left is to chase down the mastermind, but it’s not so easy as he also has the blind girl Lorna stashed away. Calhoun must race to apprehend the culprit while also getting to Lorna first. It’s a photo finish.

Did I say already that Union Station employs a gritty realism? Well, it does, and it is full of slimy criminal types pitted against no-nonsense cops who are not opposed to using rough methods if necessary. Willie Calhoun is the number one tough guy and he’s relentless in his job as the intense finale suggest. Donnelly is a character blessed with the voice of a Leprechaun thanks to Fitzgerald and believe me that’s a compliment. He’s a personable, mentoring type who is a nice compliment to Holden. Inquisitive Joyce Willecombe is necessary to get the plot rolling and also as the love interests, but Nancy Olsen gives an appeal that reaches farther than that.

Enough said, now take a trip down memory lane to Union Station where you are sure to be lost with the masses in this engaging procedural.

3.5/5 Stars

The Naked City (1948) – Film-Noir

58f41-nakedcityposterDirected by Jules Dassin and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, and Don Taylor, this documentary-style police procedural is an intriguing film. It begins with an omniscient narrator explaining the setting in New York. Soon we witness the aftermath of a murder. Then, we are following the detectives in Homicide as they try to follow the case. A beautiful model is dead and the suspects are few. Furthermore, they must figure out how stolen jewelry and a drowned man fit into the case. As Lieutenant Muldoon suspects, everything leads to an unknown culprit, a McGillicuddy. Little does the perpetrator know the police are closing in on him and it is only a matter of time. I found this film to be unique because of it’s narrator, semi-realistic approach, and relatable characters. On top of that the progression of the story was interesting and the ending sequence was entertaining. There truly are 8,000 stories in the Naked City. Enough to make a TV show.

4.5/5 Stars