Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

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This is my entry in The Vive la France Blogathon. Thanks to Lady Eve and Silver Screen Modes for having me!

I recently read some excerpts out of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Attack on Christendom” and the Danish philosopher makes the case “Even when you don’t live by a Christian reality you live in a Christianized world. You know when you offend the collective consciousness.”

Although this context is changing in the present day, it very much fits the world of this film from Jean-Pierre Melville. There is this sense of propriety and a propensity toward specific ways and lifestyles as dictated by the prevailing cultural forces. In this case, the church. Though some choose to kick against the goads and challenge the status quo. That’s where our story commences.

The substantial backdrop of World War II also ties Leon Morin to Silence de la Mer (1949) and then Army of Shadows (1969), which came well after. Because, of course, before his days as the idol of the New Wave and a craftsman of pulp gangster classics, Melville actually worked as a member of a French Resistance himself. You cannot take part in something like that without it totally impacting how you perceive the world.

But there is still an important distinction to be made. This is hardly a war movie. Instead, the war serves as a background for the human experience — a human relationship between a man and a woman. Their relationship starts early in the occupation and stretches beyond the boundaries of V-E Day.

However, the terms seem very suggestive and in an unrefined exploration of the material this would be the case. Still, by some marvel, Melville manages to conduct an astute yet still spellbinding examination of spirituality. The woman: a militant communist. The man: a humble priest of a French parish.

It is two years after Hiroshima Mon Amour. Alain Resnais’s film is one of the most poetic meditations you will ever see on the likes of love, war, and memory. Leon Morin, Priest is certainly different. It is a different kind of cadence and rhythm developing its own sense of a world and the related themes to go with it. But it is supernally evocative in its own right.

Emmanuelle Riva is Emmanuelle Riva, immaculately beautiful with eyes so bright they speak a language unto themselves. The moroseness is evident and yet they flit even momentarily between the cheery and the slightly provocative.

If Riva had her ascension on Hiroshima Mon Amour, Jean-Paul Belmondo was her equal as a nascent shooting star coming off of Godard’s Breathless. In this context, what a curious crossroads to descend upon Leon Morin, Priest. Such a quiet, tranquil picture seemingly more inclined toward the past than any manner of forward thinking. Neither is there a flashy, jazzy lifeblood to it.

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However, in another sense, it could not be more fitting. Melville, as alluded to before, was the Godfather of many of the Nouvelle Vague talents — certainly Godard — and even if it’s only in particular instances, he still has a flair unto his own.

We might note a stripped-down peer like Robert Bresson as reference, but there are abrupt dashes of pizzazz here that feel like the youth of the New Wave, whether in an implied slap to the face or a jarring jump in continuity. The persistent use of fade-outs allows the passage of time to be conceived at a leisurely pace.

The city is such an extraordinary space brimming with character imbued by the sheer amount of years being lived in its midst. At first, the shroud of war is almost a comical distraction. In its early days, solemnity has not set in. Then, the feathered garb of the Italians gives way to the no-nonsense domed blitzkrieg of the Germans.

Families have their children baptized to conveniently hide their Jewish lineage from any prying eyes within the incumbent authorities. Because soon enough, they start deporting undesirables en force. Paranoia and anti-semitism set in, even within our heroine Barny’s own workplace. Fugitives seeking asylum call on her charity in need of ration stamps and a place to gather themselves on their road to freedom.

Then, one afternoon she resolves to give a local priest a piece of her mind during confessions. She settles on the name Leon Morin as he seems like he might be the most receptive party given the peasantry pedigree of his moniker. If we were to label this decision we might label it as nothing short of Providence.

On first impression, Jean-Paul Belmondo feels like an unconventional casting for a member of the cloth. I often allude to his coming out of the tradition of Bogart but could Bogey have played a priest? Hardly. Still, Belmondo pulls it off with a candor, still blunt and true in its implementation. Because he cares deeply for others nevertheless, aided by his plain features and pragmatic perspective which both suit him well.

His dour space with only a desk, a window, and a shelf of books prove a very inviting place. Because he is such a person. At first an unassuming but ultimately charismatic spiritual leader. His lending library is open to Bardy and she begins to visit him and read his books. Somehow battling her urges to doubt due to curiosity and her own desire to gravitate toward him.

She is adamant about scientific proof for God and we begin an interim period that feels like it might be a precursor to Rohmer’s dialogues from My Night at Maud’s. In subsequent days, all the girls start coming to call on the young priest. Whether it’s merely physical attraction or some other ethereal quality about him is never stated outright. This cynical viewer is reminded of the glib aphorism, “flirt to convert.” And yet with each visitor, he comes ready to share the hope that is within him.

Bardy’s assured coworker Marion is one caller and then another very attractive girl who plans to seduce him; it seems she’s in the business of it with a laundry list of conquests going before her. And yet the perplexing aspect of the priest is how impregnable he is even as he welcomes each woman in, cultivates their spiritual well-being, and deals with them in such a frank manner.

Likewise, from the pulpit, he does not spare his words for the congregation sitting before him any given holy day. Recalling much of what Kierkegaard criticized, he warns them not to be merely “Sunday Christians.” “Not living out a Christian life drives away the undecided” and this is nothing new.

Hypocrisy or closer still being little different from everyone else is often one of the greatest faults of people who are deemed “Christian.” He further extolls them, “They should each be an apostle in their own setting.” It is a fallacy that only a priest can do the work of God. So while he speaks with consternation, he wraps it up with a note of hope. Because according to him,  there is “A God whose grace is given to the heretics and believers alike, loved equally in his sight.”

We see even momentarily his guiding force. Why he pursued Barny and did his best to shepherd her. He’s no elitist. His time and services are extended to all people. He lives it out in the day-to-day of life together with others.

When Barny and Morin must finally say goodbye there is so much in the air, gratefulness, sadness, wistfulness — even as she has fallen in love for his righteous guidance and he remains resolved in his mission to tend after the souls of those in his stead.

To merely say this is a conversion story is too simplistic. To claim it’s suggesting the sensuality of forbidden love is off the mark. We already confirmed it is not a war picture. The brilliance of Melville is painting around these conventional lines with the utmost nuance. Of course, the performances are superb. The two cinematic saints in Riva and Belmondo make it possible. The fact we are fallen humans, ripe with warring desires and doubts, make it necessary. Dealing with spirituality in such a perceptive manner is nothing short of a modern miracle.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Bogart actually did portray a priest in The Left Hand of God toward the end of his career. Thanks for those who pointed it out to me. Much appreciated!

Peggy Carter From Captain America: The First Avenger

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This is my entry in the 2019 Reel Infatuation Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. Minor spoilers for Captain America follow…

Let’s just get this out of the way. It’s the last thing I want to do to rehash The Avengers because my most appreciative remark about Endgame was the fact that it brought closure.

But this is an entirely different matter. I want to acknowledge my affections for Peggy Carter. While my interest in the series has admittedly waxed and waned over the course of almost a decade, my fondness for Peggy has never faltered.

It began with The First Avenger because that was her coming-out party — the first chance she was brought before a cinematic audience in a meaningful way — and Hayley Atwell killed the portrayal. By the end of it, I was sold on one of the central stories of Marvel because it rang with a real shard of truth: wartime lovers separated.

Yes, the extenuating circumstances were plucked out of a future-inspired sci-fi comic book but this was hardly material. The separation of Peggy and Cap was what mattered most.

As the years continued onward and the Marvel machine grew larger and more unwieldy, the one Marvel tie-in show I was actually excited about was Agent Carter. In fact, I followed its syndicated progress quite dutifully because I was devoted to learning more about Peggy. I was intrigued by her world and how she would play a part in it.

At the time, the only comfort I could think of was humming the consoling wartime refrains of Dame Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” Because even with the companionship of Jarvis, Howard Stark, and her fellow police officers, there was this ongoing sense that someone was missing in her life. Still, she pushes dutifully on with her work.

Later in The Winter Soldier when we saw Peggy Carter on her deathbed it took the wind out of my sails. This was not what I wanted. It felt unnatural and strange but the emotions were still there; they did not waver for an instant.

Thanks to time, I finally forgot about her funeral until word of Endgame circulated again and my unrealized romance still hung suspended in limbo. There was lingering hope of some form of supernatural closure outside of the confines of the story already told.

But none of this touches directly on why I was smitten with her character. For that, we must go back to Captain America The First Avenger in 2011. First, let’s consider the world…

Peggy Carter and Classic Hollywood

I’ve realized since having a bit of a classic movie renaissance in my own life over the last 6 years or so, it’s been the stars of the 1940s who became some of my personal favorites.

I’m talking about the likes of Teresa Wright, Ann Sheridan, Deanna Durbin, Eleanor Parker, Ella Raines, and even Rosalind Russell. They dressed up films of the 1940s with a certain girls-next-door-appeal, working girl pluckiness, and the traditional conventions of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”

In the case of Russell, especially in her iconic portrayal as a newswoman in His Girl Friday, she all but proved she could be one of the boys and beat them all to the scoop.

I know Hayley Atwell is a contemporary British-American actress but for me, she is closely tied to the nostalgia of the past decades in part to her lengthy characterization as Peggy.  Because Peggy feels like a product of the 1940s, of the mores driving people at that time, but she’s also quietly countercultural.

Did anyone else think of Heddy Lamar’s joint patent on frequency hopping during the height of World War II? Her work got all but dismissed but history has stood by her, proving how integral her work was for future technological advancement. For these types of reasons, Agent Carter has obvious shades of reality while quietly subverting the common narrative.

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The Many Facets of Her Character

There is a certain amount of 1940s propriety about her. She has manners but she does not acquiesce when other’s try to discriminate against her. There’s nothing flashy about her yet she gets the job done with efficiency and grit when it’s called for. She’s not a squeamish individual.

Fittingly, I read in an interview that Hayley Atwell took Ginger Rogers’ words to heart, doing everything her colleagues do except in heels. One can even imagine — in spite of her obvious opulence onscreen — Peggy might have taken Ginger as a bit of a role model in real life. In a purportedly “man’s world” she was able to excel to the highest degree.

But she is resilient and grounded standing up for what is fundamentally right. This goes for her relationships outside of mere military protocol. Because while Steve Rogers, in his original form, is a bit of a pipsqueak by the world’s standards, again, she sees the inherent worth in him — the tenacity and heart, not unlike her own.

In fact, Peggy is anchored by a heart. There is hardly a superficial bone in her body and it makes her all the more appealing. She has the capacity to carry herself with class without ever truly feeling arrogant or dismissive — at least in the way the world might. She disregards the pickup lines and mere masculine shows of machismo for more subtle qualities.

When others bully Steve and knock him down, she’s there to encourage him to continue the fight with warmth and kindness. These were the seeds of affection for me. Someone who is capable to see the interior goodness in someone else going beyond physical appearance is worth having in your life.

She even has the gumption to call Steve out when he gets shallow or feels sorry for himself. It’s tough love but it’s love that nevertheless sticks by his side with a deep-seated loyalty. It goes beyond superficial attraction.

Certainly, there’s an underlining discreetness and reserve to her demeanor, which is one sense old-fashioned but in still another sense feels deeply appealing. Case and point is their final interaction while he is facing mortality and she has him on the radio (a la Stairway to Heaven).

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We know he’s hurtling toward his death. She knows it too but doesn’t want to admit it outright. They talk about a date to an upcoming dance they’ve been planning together. Obviously, it’s the subtext of a screenwriter writing a scene playing out but it also speaks to the culture of the characters. Keeping the stiff upper lip, keeping calm and carrying on, and all that. You more often than not keep your emotions in check to be strong for your significant other. 

It’s simultaneously one of the most heart-wrenching scenes precisely because of this understatement with the vulnerability still coming through. I wouldn’t always say it’s the best way in life to keep emotions couched in this manner but it certainly rings with core truth. Because this is what people did and what people still do now. The key is knowing their love speaks out in different ways.

It’s Been a Long Long Time

Putting the absurd plotline aside, the core romance and relationship of Captain America: The First Avenger sold me because it brought us back to a bygone time and place. Yes, I am a sucker for this kind of nostalgic setup but still, somehow it resonated with me on a deeper level than I can remember from similar period pieces. The chemistry was there.

Flashforward to the improbable reunion at the closing of Endgame and my heart was a flutter. Finally satisfied and satiated. All was right with the world. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. Kitty Kallen’s knowing “It’s Been A Long Long Time” was ringing out on the Victrola. Most important of all, Cap and dear Peggy were brought together again. If this wasn’t my highlight from the movie I’m not sure what was.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder and reunions have rarely felt so sweet. As we say in this generation: All the feels. In that generation, a record and an embrace were enough. It was a long time coming (over 70 years) but Peggy Carter got the happy resolution she deserved. I can finally say Peggy and Cap really did meet again one sunny day and it was good.

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5 Favorite Films of the 1950s: The B Sides

Just a day ago a whole slew of individuals shared their 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s for National Classic Movie Day. Thank you again to The Film & TV Cafe for spearheading that quality endeavor!

In retrospect, I realized all my choices were really “A Pictures,” which were difficult and yet at the same time fairly easy to choose. They were all no-brainer picks because I love them a great deal. Many others also chose the likes of Singin’ in The Rain, Roman Holiday, and Rear Window (for good reason, I might add).

However, the decisions that left me the most intrigued were, of course, the dark horses and the underappreciated gems. Certainly, you have to start somewhere when it comes to embarking on the classic movie journey, but half of the fun is unearthing treasures along the way. For instance, I was left charmed by the following picks, all wonderful films in their own right, that I would have never thought to choose:

People Will Talk, The Narrow Margin, The Earrings of Madame De…, It’s Always Fair WeatherThe Burmese Harp, and Night of the Demon, just to name a handful.

All of this to say, I was inspired by these folks to take on “Round 2” for my own edification. I’m going to leave my highly subjective list of “A Sides” behind for what I’ll term the “B Sides.” The only rule I’m going to place on myself is that this fresh set of picks must be what I deem to be “underrated movies.” Again, it’s a very subjective term, I know.

Regardless, here they are with only minor deliberation!

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Stars in My Crown (1950)

Jacques Tourneur is an unsung auteur and if all he had on his resume were Cat People (1942) and Out of The Past (1947), his would be quite the legacy. However, throughout the ’50s, he helmed a bevy of fabulous westerns and adventure pictures. I almost chose Wichita (1955), also starring Joel McCrea. In the end, this moving portrait of a frontier minister won out because it cultivates such a fine picture of how one is supposed to live in the midst of a bustling community of disparate individuals. This involves conflict, tension, tragedy, and ultimately, a great deal of human kindness.

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The Breaking Point (1950)

Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not with Bogey and Bacall is probably more well-known but this version has merits of its own. Namely, a typically tenacious and compelling John Garfield playing a returning G.I. and family man trying to make a living in an unfeeling world. His wife portrayed by Phyllis Thaxter deserves a nod as well for her thoroughly honest effort. The movie gets bonus points for shooting in and around my old summer stomping grounds on Balboa Island.

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Bigger Than Life (1956)

It does feel a bit like Nicholas Ray was the king of the 1950s. Rebel Without a Cause is the landmark thanks, in part, to James Dean. However, his best picture, on any given day, could be Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford, On Dangerous Ground with Robert Ryan, or The Lusty Men with Robert Mitchum. Today I choose Bigger Than Life because James Mason gives, arguably, the performance of his career as a man turned maniacal by the effects of his new miracle drug, cortisone. It employs the same gorgeous Technicolor tones and Cinemascope Ray would become renowned for while also developing a truly terrifying portrait of 1950s suburbia.

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Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

I skipped James Dean’s most famous film, but never fear because in his place is a film featuring an actor who channeled the American icon’s angsty cool. In Andrzej Wajda’s Polish drama, set at the end of WWII, Zbigniew Cybulski embodies much of the same electric energy. His defining performance is central to a gripping tale about a country absolutely decimated by war, between German occupation and the ensuing columns of Russian soldiers arriving on their doorstep.

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Good Morning (1959)

This might be my personal favorite of the Yasujiro Ozu’s films for its pure levity. The images are meticulously staged as per usual with glorious coloring. Every frame could easily be a painting. However, against this backdrop is a domestic story about two brothers who hope to wage a pouting war against their parents who won’t cave and buy them a TV like they want. The conceit is simple but the results are absolutely delightful.

Well, that just about wraps up my 5 supplemental picks…

Except I would be remiss if I didn’t share at least a handful of other outliers. Let me know what you think of the films I chose!

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)

National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s

Thank you Classic Film & TV Cafe for hosting this Blogathon!

Though it’s tantamount to utter absurdity to try and whittle all my personal favorites of the decade down to five choices (I might cheat a little), this is part of the fun of such lists, isn’t it? Each one is highly subjective. No two are the same. They change on whims; different today, tomorrow, and the next. But I will do the best to make a go of it.

If anything this is a humble beacon — a twinkling five-sided star — meant to shine a light upon my profound affinity for classic movies on this aptly conceived National Classic Movie Day. For those in need of gateway films, these are just a few I would recommend without deep analysis, solely following my most guttural feelings. Hopefully that is recommendation enough. Let the adulation begin!

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1. Singing In The Rain (1952):

Many classic film enthusiasts weren’t always so. At least, on many occasions, there was a demarcation point where the scales tipped and they became a little more frenzied in their pursuits. For someone like me, I didn’t always watch many movies. However, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds were household names even from my earliest recollections.

Singin’ in the rain with the giddy abandon of Don and bringing down the house with gags like Cosmo were childhood aspirations. Kathy, the young hopeful, aspired for big dreams, not unlike my own. They were idols because they made life and the movies — even song and dance — so very euphoric. It took me many years to know this was a part of a musical cottage industry or who Cyd Charisse was (because we’d always fast-forward through that risque interlude). Regardless of anything else, the film effects me in the most revelatory way. You can barely put words to it. You need simply to experience it firsthand.

After seeing it so many times it becomes comforting to return again and again. What’s even better is how the magic never dies. We lost Stanley Donen this year but this extraordinary piece of entertainment will live on for generations to come.

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2. Roman Holiday (1953)

I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw Roman Holiday. It was on an international flight to England. I was young and ignorant with not the slightest idea who Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were. You can determine whether or not I was living under a rock or not. However, what did happen is a young kid was decisively swept off his feet by a film. Those were before the days I gave even a moderate consideration of directors like William Wyler, much less debated or bandied about terms like auteur.

What does become so evident is the chemistry between our stars, hardly manufactured, even as the setting, placed in living, breathing Rome, imbues a certain authentic vitality of its own. Vespa rides are exhilarating. The sites are still ones I want to see and haven’t. And of course, I’ve only grown in my esteem of both Audrey and Mr. Peck as I’ve gotten older.

It’s crazy to imagine my only point of reference for such a picture was Eddie Albert (having been bred on more than a few episodes of Green Acres). Any way you slice it, this is, in my book, the quintessential romantic comedy because it is part fairy tale and it comes with all the necessary trimmings, while still planting itself in the real world. I always exit the halls of the palace feeling rejuvenated. Each time it’s like experiencing wonderful memories anew.

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3. Rear Window (1954)

It’s a weighty task to even begin considering your favorite film but to make it easier on myself whenever the inevitable question is dropped in my lap, I’m quick to reply: Rear Window. The answer is actually quite an easy one. Alfred Hitchcock is as good a reason as any. Add James Stewart and Grace Kelly and you’ve entered the gold standard of movie talent. They don’t come more iconic.

The Master of Suspense’s chilling thriller was another fairly early viewing experience with me and it immediately left an impression. Again, it’s another example of how appreciation can mature over time. Thelma Ritter is always a favorite. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound throughout the picture accentuates this artificial but nevertheless meticulous sense of authenticity.

How Hitchcock utilizes the fragments of music and the supporting characters in the courtyard to comment on these secondary themes of romantic love playing against the central mystery is superb. It’s a perfect coalescing of so much quality in one compelling cinematic endeavor. Even down to how the opening and final scenes are cut perfectly, introducing the story and encapsulating the progression of character from beginning to end. It is pure visual cinema.

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4. 12 Angry Men (1957)

I care deeply about interpersonal relationships and as movies have become more a part of my life it has become increasingly more important for them to hold a microscope to how we interact with one another in the world at hand. For me, there are very few films that channel real human relationships in a meaningful way as effectively as Sidney Lumet’s debut 12 Angry Men. Like Rear Window, it is developed in limiting environs and yet rather than such constraints leading to the stagnation of a story, it only serves to ratchet the tension.

Because the ensemble is an impeccable range of stars spearheaded by Henry Fonda and balanced out by a wide array of talent including a pair of friends from my classic sitcom days John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). However, all of this is only important because the story has actual consequence. Here we have 12 men battling over the verdict on a young man’s life.

But as any conflict has the habit of doing, it brings out all the prejudices, inconsistencies, and blind spots uncovered and aggravated when people from varying points of views are thrust in a room together. it’s an enlightening and ultimately humbling experience for me every time because it challenges me to actively listen to where others are coming from and empathize with their point of view so we can dialogue on a sincere level. It’s also simultaneously a sobering analysis of the gravity of the American justice system.

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5. Some Like it Hot (1959)

I most recently saw Some Like it Hot as part of a retrospective across the globe from where I usually call home. But what a wonderful viewing experience it was. Again, it’s akin to getting back together with old friends. I personally love Jack Lemmon to death and paired with Tony Curtis and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hair-brained, raucous comedy coming out of Hollywood.

Billy Wilder is certainly one reason for this and I’ve always come to admire his ability for screwball and often mordant wit. There is arguably no higher watermark than Some Like it Hot and the script is wall-to-wall with hilarious gags and scenarios. Like all the great ones, you wait for a favorite line with expectancy only to be ambushed by another zinger you never found time to catch before.

But there is also a personal element to the picture. Many might know the Hotel Del Coronado in sunny San Diego filled in for the Florida coast and having spent many a lovely day on those very shores, I cannot help but get nostalgic. Not only was this film indicative of a different time — the jazz age by way of the 1950s — it also suggests a very different juncture in my own life. While I cannot have the time back I can look on those memories fondly just as I do with this film…

So there you have it. I gave it my best shot pulling from personal preference and the idealistic leanings of my heart of hearts. I hope you enjoyed my Top 5 from The ’50s!

But wait…


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Honorary Inclusion: The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Full disclosure. I know this is cheating but I take any occasion I possibly can to promote Sam Fuller‘s gritty Little Tokyo police procedural. For me, it deserves a special acknowledgment. As a Japanese-American and coming from a multicultural background myself, it was a groundbreaking discovery and an unassuming film with a richness proving very resonant over the recent years. It blends elements so very near and dear to me. Namely, film noir and my own heritage — all wrapped up into one wonderful B-film package. Please give it a watch!

THE END

Decoy (1946)

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THIS IS MY VERY LATE ENTRY IN THE CMBA SPRING BLOGATHON: FEMME/HOMME FATALES OF FILM NOIR! 

Like any self-respecting noir, this one chooses to open in a grungy gas station bathroom with a hero (Herbert Rudley) disheveled, hobbling, and covered with grime. We can gather he’s been through hell. Better yet, Decoy begins at the end of the story with murder!

He hobbles past a gas station attendant, stands at the side of the road to hitch a ride to San Fransisco. Mind you, this is without saying a single word. Upon arriving, he wanders into a hotel. He takes the elevator up, pushes open the front door, sees an attractive woman packing and proceeds to fill her with lead! What’s even stranger is the cop who follows close at hand as if he knows exactly what’s about to happen. He plods in to find the shooter dead and the lady dying.

Here’s this pretty dame, Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie), in the arms of a hardboiled flat foot (Sheldon Leonard) recounting her indiscretions on her deathbed. Really all she’s doing is helping him pick up the stray pieces he already knew but for the audience, it’s all news. To get a line on the story, we must start back with an incarcerated gangster named Frankie Ollins (Robert Armstrong).

He is in line for the gas chamber and Margot has long been his girl. She assuages him, saying they’re lining up money to get him out of his jam — but she also is concerned about security — he has promised to keep her sitting pretty. And he has the resources to do it with $400,000 waiting out there for her somewhere. He just needs to give the word. We get the sense foul play might be a central component of our story.

From thenceforward she goes to work efficiently. She exerts her feminine charms on a local clinician who also regularly gives his services to the local prison. You see, he is pegged to do the autopsy on Frankie’s body just to make sure everything’s on the level. Except Margot’s got his head spinning — most of it happens off camera —  but we believe he’s fallen for her, like putty in her manicured, greedy little fingers.

And Margot goes all in, playing it up. The love angle is seemingly candid even as she tells him the plan to revive the “dead” gangster with Methylene Blue. We witness the gas chamber in a groggy POV shot. In another picture about regenerate gangsters, this would be the end. For Decoy it is merely the beginning.

Because Margot is the film’s greatest force as a notable apex in the gallery of B noir femmes. She keeps gangsters madly jealous, twisted around her fingers, and then righteous men start caving, relinquishing their high ideals just to be with her.

Two of the most oddball supporting characters in the pictures are the morgue attendants who distract themselves with solitaire and reading words out of the dictionary — a real hoot — but they are plain folk who don’t ask questions when the good doctor skips out on the normal autopsy.

They go on obliviously as the body gets carted off to the “oven” only to get picked up by waiting gangsters. By now, there’s little doubting it. Owens is to be resurrected and yet it’s the devil incarnate doing it! But someone like Margot is only operating in viable currency. People are only needed for their immediate value to her.

Frankie is out of the picture when he’s not needed, Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) is just a handy thug to have around, and of course, Dr. Craig’s expertise made him invaluable (although he does smoke cigs which always leaves me scratching my head).

Everyone else is under the illusion that she actually wants them. Her intentions surely cannot be completely self-serving? Can they? And yet she can be found jamming the accelerator to get rid of people and gunning down hapless accomplices with waves of giddy relish. Even on her deathbed, she gets the last laugh on a cop who falls momentarily under her spell. But for all her trouble she got absolute zilch. A creature of crazed avariciousness will ultimately be met with total destruction.

Jean Gillie’s accent somehow elevates her performance with an edge of refinement and respectability the British seem to have and yet her actions and words are like vicious daggers of selfishness. There is no other way to see her vindictiveness but within the context of film noir; it’s a pulpy delight. Detour is still the standard bearer and the pinnacle of Poverty Row, throw ’em together noir gems, but Gillie is a preeminent femme fatale, especially for such an unassuming picture.

3/5 Stars

 

Allene Roberts in The Red House

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This is terribly delayed but I would be remiss if I didn’t submit an entry to this year’s addition of THE REEL INFATUATION BLOGATHON. Without further ado…

I’ve only seen Allene Roberts in one film and she’s hardly even the star of the picture. That privilege goes to Edward G. Robinson as the matriarch of a family with a secret. Still, from the first moment I saw her in The Red House (1947), I couldn’t help but be taken with her persona on screen — that of the daughter Meg — because it feels so very genuine. Infatuation is too strong a word. But nevertheless, being young I was taken with her doleful innocence. That’s as best as I can describe it.

In his contemporary review for the film Philip K. Scheuer paid her the ultimate compliment in The Los Angeles Times, “Allene Roberts appears to be a real find-winsome like Teresa Wright, and with an appealing loneliness.”

To watch the film is to know exactly what he means. It’s no surprise that Teresa Wright is one of my favorite actresses. They share that same girl-next-door charm that’s quintessentially indicative of the war years. It exudes Americana. And yet when I look at Allene Roberts the first name that came to mind — the person she reminded me of the most — was Wright’s costar from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Cathy O’Donnell.

There’s an inherent warmth and a naivete that they seem almost incapable of shedding. It’s just a part of who they are. They can’t help but be any other way. Roberts, on her part, is so youthful and innocent and yet look into her eyes in quieter moments and you see a pensive moroseness that comes to the fore.

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As Meg, she cares deeply for family and cultivates those relationships through love and loyalty. The boy she admires is equally calm in temperament (played by Lon MacAllister) and they look to be a match made in heaven. Though he admittedly already has a girl, the sultry Julie London who provides the complete antithesis to Robert’s angelic demeanor. It’s a very purposeful juxtaposition that makes each characterization all the more striking.

Because though The Red House is ultimately a film about a buried family secret, it’s most fascinating for the at times curious character dynamics that it displays as well as moody atmospherics. It’s impossible to pull away from the screen not because of the mystery but due to the individuals brought to the screen. They intrigue us. Not the least among them being this girl.

Allene Roberts was only about 17 years old when she came to the screen and she was just about as humble as one might be while still winding up in Hollywood. She was heavily active in her church back in Alabama and lived a generally happy childhood although her father passed away when she was young.

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Look over her life and hear bits and pieces of her own account in the wonderful interview from Films of The Golden Age and you are inundated by a story that feels so warm and genuine. There was no drama, scandal, or deep-seated regret, only a life of contentment, nostalgic reminisces, and a refreshing ordinariness.

As she is still with us today, it’s a charming discovery to read some of her recollections from those Golden Years of Hollywood including encounters with Bette Davis and James Cagney (though she didn’t like him too much). However, she was very fond of Robinson for how he treated her in The Red House. She recalls,

“I was working with one of the biggest stars in history, Edward G. Robinson, and I remember my first scene was with him and it was on location on a farm about halfway up California, near San Francisco-somewhere up there… I was terribly nervous. I was seventeen. So we talked and laughed. You know, it just felt like he was somebody I had known forever. Our first scene was in that barn where I asked him to hire Lon McCallister to come and help him in the afternoons. He always played the bad guy in most every picture he did, but he was anything but bad. He was the sweetest person to work with. I just really loved him.”

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Furthermore, of her director Delmer Daves she remembers the following,

“I had a scene where I had to cry and when we were through shooting, I looked at him and tears were rolling down his face. He was touched by the scene and that really thrilled me that I made that kind of impression on him. He was very sweet to everybody.”

But the beauty of Roberts’ life is that even though her career never bloomed to the heights of a Teresa Wright and didn’t even feature many high profile pictures like Cathy O’Donnell who was closely related to William Wyler, she nevertheless led a pleasant life. She met a charming man whom she dearly loved and left the screen behind for good.

Still, to discover her again in The Red House feels like something uniquely special. It only takes one performance for the viewer to be affected and to want to know more about someone. Because for me Allene Rogers seem so real and genuine in a way that was so very unmanufactured or manicured. We often think of Classic Hollywood making stars like a factory churning out commodities. Changing their names. Giving them certain hairstyles or looks. Stirring up the news columns about them. It’s refreshing to find someone like Roberts who comes off so charmingly normal. She was able to live a life away from the gossip columns and scandals that seem all too prevalent.

I dearly hope she is still doing well and I thank her immensely for her showing in The Red House. The magic of the movies is we can continually be spellbound by her work all these years later. Truly remarkable.

The Big Steal (1949)

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Granted you have star power but it’s easy to assume that The Big Steal will be a no name picture. A minor triumph at best. Not so! This film fares far better than countless of its bigger competitors.

It proves to be a winking romp full of bedroom brawls, car chases, and twists and turns every which way that send us whipping through Mexico. Equally important to the pace of the action is the levity of the script from Daniel Mainwaring (under a pseudonym) that gives our stars something to do and they do it effortlessly.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (partnered again after the undisputed classic Out of the Past) meet as the two obvious foreigners in a sea of locals as Mitchum is getting accosted by a street vendor to buy a parrot. He’s one of those foreigners coming off as a buffoon navigating other cultures and the languages that go with them. Though I can’t ride him too hard as one of those blundering Americans myself. Still, his Spanish is mediocre at best and she is aghast at his cultural insensitivity. So right there you have the needed romantic tension and things only get better going forward.

Because their association doesn’t end there. Of course, it doesn’t. Duke Halladay is out to nab the man named Fiske (Patric Knowles) who absconded with some of his hard earned cash and Joan had a similar job pulled on her — the man of questionable integrity also just happened to be her boyfriend.

The unlikely partnership is formed after Mitchum leaps for the running board of the other man’s fleeing vehicle and winds up dragging Greer in front of the Inspector General to explain the public disturbance.

The Inspector General (Ramon Novarro) happens to be a budding pupil in English as his second in command (Don Alvarado) attended the University of California which while being convenient for the story also manages to make our Mexican characters into actual individuals who are endowed with an animated quality all their own.

If the main chase is our leading couple trying to track down Fiske, who gives them the slip on multiple occasions then the scenario simply gets more convoluted as Duke’s superior (William Bendix) is tailing him. They have some unfinished business to attend to because Blake believes the other man took part in a theft of his own. Thus, The Big Steal is just that. Even the soft-spoken John Qualen (probably best remembered for Casablanca) gets in on the party and flaunts a bit of a villainous side.

Some of the finer moments are the lighter ones. There’s the ongoing patter of the dialogue firing off between Mitchum and Greer which couldn’t be better and it comes from the days where a guy could call a dame “Chaquita” and it’d stick. But the beauty of their relationship is Greer with that quizzical look of hers can dish it right back in Mitchum’s direction.

Likewise, during a winding car chase, the same character can quite seriously exclaim “Watch out for the cow” only to turn right around and create a livestock blockade of his own. Or because we are in rural Mexico cars can get stuck behind a caravan of hay wagons ambling along leisurely. They have no respect for the drama at stake. On another note, I’m flabbergasted that the cars involved survived at all with the dubious amount of off-roading they managed. I guess in the 1940s they built things to last.

There’s one hilarious roadblock in particular where Jane Greer uses her Spanish and Mitchum’s obliviousness to tell a local road worker (Pascual Garcia Pena) that they are madly in love and running away from her disapproving father. They must get through at all costs and it just so happens that Captain Blake is right behind him and receives a fine welcoming committee.

But the key is that the film ends not on the downward plunge but on the upswing as our two lovebirds observe the local mating rituals and give it their own twist. What a great picture and sure, it’s no Out of the Past but no one needs it to be. We already have one of those and The Big Steal is a leisure ride of its own making.

Set this against a backdrop beyond the Mexico border, a spliced together version of on location atmospherics and studio shots, and you are blessed with the wonderful patchwork of authenticity and artificiality that old Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s.

What’s more fascinating is that The Big Steal at least in this form might never have been. Robert Mitchum was hot off his notorious jailtime term because of marijuana possession, an event that undoubtedly solidified his reputation as an antihero. Meanwhile, not too happy with Jane Greer, RKO studio head and temperamental mogul Howard Hughes gave her this role out of spite.

How could a picture this small be any good with a leading man saddled with bad publicity? I cannot speak to contemporary audiences but today The Big Steal plays quite well. We have our stars and screenwriter to thank as well as a young up and coming director named Don Siegel who started out as a montage man and transitioned into B-pictures.

What makes him a wonderful worksmith is how he always seems to have a pulse on the action and he turns situations into truly dynamic entertainment even when it’s on a small scale. He didn’t need a big budget to still make a rip-roaring good time. The Big Steal is a stellar testament to what the Classic Hollywood studios were capable of with meager means. It’s an absorbing effort.

4/5 Stars

Reign of Terror/The Black Book (1949)

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Depending on where you look Anthony Mann’s 1949 film comes under two different titles that are both equally apt. Reign of Terror denotes its roots in the French Revolution of the 1790s that saw the ousting of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while putting Maximilien Robespierre at the helm of one of the most ghastly mobs known to man.

Any lover of history can call most everything in this picture into question but that’s almost beyond the point. This is not a tale that claims historical accuracy but a story of claustrophobic intensity that takes an era and builds an intriguing and gritty little drama out of all the sordid, twisted details. Perhaps more importantly than that it begins to draw parallels to the contemporary moment and that’s where the second title comes in.

The black book is the object that causes men to kill and lie and deceive one another because within its pages dwells great power to dictate the outcome of this kingdom on the precipice of something new. Whether or not that proves to be an optimistic direction very much depends on who gains access to said book. Robespierre (Richard Basehart) has lost it, the chief of the secret police Fouche (Arnold Moss) is intent on acquiring it for his own, as is a ring of staunch patriots looking to pilot their beloved nation back toward stability. That is only the main narrative thread. It seems like little coincidence that a black book shares great similarity to a blacklist.

In the 1950s, whether a concrete document existed hardly mattered because having your name added to this industry list was enough. Though not the same as being sent to the guillotine, for an actor or director it was tantamount to the death of a career as many found themselves out of work for years afterward.

While High Noon is often noted as one of the most high-profile blacklist allegories, The Black Book might be one of the most striking since it dares to find a point of reference between volatile and bloody history many years prior and the current reality. There’s nothing subtle about it.

Thus, whatever you want to label it, Reign of Terror or The Black Book, it proves to be a fascinating amalgamation of historical drama, film noir, and political allegory. Somehow it manages to be a low budget epic combining some wonderful talents that go beyond just Anthony Mann but to producer Walter Wanger, legendary cinematographer John Alton, and set designer William Cameron Menzies.

On the whole, it’s an unsentimental portrait comprised of severe low angle close-ups and shadows that spell film noir forwards and backward. It’s deliciously atmospheric, brooding with darkness and matched by ferocious stylized violence that sizzles in every moment of conflict. The sequences in front of the guillotine against the backdrop of the masses even conjure up the frames of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and it’s true that this picture ironically recycled sets from Joan of Arc from the year prior.

Looking at film from the perspective of a historian, one of the greatest enjoyments comes when I am able to view content that has a similar theme running through it whether a specific director, actor, genre, or subject. In a flurry of activity, I’ve been able to derive a greater appreciation for the talents of Robert Cummings in particular.

Though this might sound reductive, much in the way that Joel McCrea is called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, Cummings just might be the poor man’s Jimmy Stewart and I say that because he has the same type of everyman quality that’s easy to latch onto.

Although I could never see Stewart pulling off a period role like this and though not entirely authentic, Cummings is a fine protagonist navigating the back alleyways and roads of deception and treachery that dictate the life of a citizen of the New Republic. Even when he does something that might be suspect there’s inherent trust the audience attributes to him.

Meanwhile, stunning Arlene Dahl looks ravishing in period costume but she also becomes a multifaceted companion of Charles D’Aubigny (Cummings) and one of his only points of contact who proves reliable and resourceful. Otherwise, the picture is crammed full of all sorts of characters with varying allegiances and intentions, not to mention cameos from such figures as the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon.

If it’s not quite like the blacklist then you figure out how very easily it could be. The film takes so many about faces and turns by the denouement it’s hard to know who is in the right or wrong or more important yet who ended up on the right side of history — the ones who wrote the victor’s narrative — because oftentimes they are the ones who go down as the heroes. Whether that is true or not is up for considerable debate.

4/5 Stars

Grace Kelly & Audrey Hepburn

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Source: TIME

The caption from TIME Magazine read as follows: Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly Backstage, 1956. The two most elegant stars of their era are photographed backstage at the RKO Pantages Theatre, as they wait to present: Hepburn gave Best Picture to Marty, and Kelly awarded the Best Actor statue to Ernest Borgnine for the same film.

I’m not sure if they ever met again or had any further interaction but this image always fascinated me because I would say unequivocally Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly are my two favorite actresses of all time, from any era, any decade, bar none.

That third spot undoubtedly changes often between the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Teresa Wright, Natalie Portman, Gene Tierney, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Brie Larson or any number of other talented stars but the bottom line is my deep admiration for Princess Grace and Ms. Hepburn has remained unwavering.

I think it’s been a little over 10 years ago since I saw Roman Holiday for the first time and I was initially struck by Audrey Hepburn even though I knew very little about classic movies. Living under a rock as I did, I probably didn’t even know her name. But I didn’t need that to be affected by the film. I think it only took a couple more films to realize I had a slight crush on her.

What followed soon thereafter was a viewing of Rear Window, followed by High Noon, To Catch a Thief, and then, of course, the inevitable happened and I had a crush on Grace Kelly too. Rear Window is still my go to film when people ask me my personal favorite. There are so many wonderful aspects to enjoy and one of those is Kelly’s performance as Lisa Fremont.

Though in some ways Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn couldn’t be more different, there are a couple luminous qualities that undoubtedly tie them together. First, they both performed in some wonderful films as already mentioned and they are both renowned as style icons and women of immense beauty.

They shared some of the same leading men including William Holden, Gary Cooper, and perhaps most notably Cary Grant. They both were taken from us far too soon but their lives even after Hollywood were marked by their efforts as global goodwill ambassadors.

All of these things are certainly true but beyond that, there’s something about the way they carried themselves that’s so iconic. It’s the kind of thing you can hardly teach and seems even harder to categorize. It’s grace, it’s humility, it’s good humor and it’s a spellbinding presence. It’s both onscreen and off it. I could watch their movies over and over again and part of that is because they are such special individuals who were imbued with innumerable traits like the aforementioned that are so easy to admire.

Though the tabloids devoured their every move, they seemed less inclined to care about the spotlight. Though they both won Oscars on the biggest stage, they still maintained a civility that would put other stars to shame.

I think it’s only fair to end with some viewing recommendations. Some possible Double Features might be High Noon and Love in the Afternoon, Sabrina and The Country Girl, or even The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Paris When it Sizzles. But there’s a particular pairing that’s perhaps the most obvious.

For your viewing pleasure check out the Double Feature of To Catch a Thief (1955) and Charade (1963).

To Catch a Thief is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s famed romantic thriller starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant about a reformed cat burglar living on the Riviera. It has that textbook Hitchcockian blend of mystery, romance, and wit with Kelly as the quintessential Hitchcock blonde.

Meanwhile, a few years down the road, Stanley Donen developed his own homage to “The Master of Suspense” long dubbed in many circles as “the best Hitchcock picture Hitchcock never made.” It too is a lithe thriller juggling its romantic interludes and snappy repartee with a genuinely tense spy plot throughout France.

I will end with one moment in the film that seems especially pertinent to this discussion. Crucial to some of the film’s storyline is a stamp collector who provides invaluable information to our hero Regina (Audrey Hepburn). In a brief passing moment, he nonchalantly mentions a batch of stamps including, “12 Princess Grace Commemorative stamps.” This is, of course, in reference to her marriage of Prince Rainer of Monaco in 1956 which became an international sensation. It’s a reassuring note.

So though we might have wished that they shared more moments together or even that they could have shared the silver screen together, this throwaway line in Charade reminded me, even briefly, how iconic these two ladies were. And though it’s really only in spirit, this slight nod allows them to share the screen as much as it simultaneously acknowledges their rightful place in our popular culture.

Many people will remember them as royalty for years to come. Audrey Hepburn of course famously coming to public attention as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday and Grace Kelly leaving her Hollywood career behind at the height of stardom to become Princess Grace of Monaco.

This is my entry in the Grace Kelly Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema!

Claude Jade as Christine Doinel

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As often happens in the life of a classic movie aficionado, I became acquainted Claude Jade quite by accident and it happened at a random point in her filmography. In Hitchcock’s Cold War thriller Topaz (1969) she has a small part to play but the Master of Suspense was pointed to the actress by Francois Truffaut the French critic and director who had undertaken an immense interview with Hitch that has remained a treasure for cinema fanatics.

But still, that in itself has little bearing on Claude Jade. Jade came to the forefront of my mind after watching several entries in Truffaut’s famed Antoine Doinel saga starring Jean-Pierre Leaud, the first of these being Stolen Kisses (1968). And she immediately left an indelible mark on this viewer because she seemed the complete antithesis of our main character. Antoine was always a bit of a troublemaker, a vagrant, a malcontent, and whatever other negative descriptors you want to throw out. In some respect, it’s difficult to like him.

Yet from the first moment we see Christine Darbon, the wide-eyed ingenue, Antoine, and the audience are immediately taken with her for those very reasons. She’s so kind and sweet in ways that Antoine never manages to be. There’s an innocence and a playfulness behind her eyes that’s disarming. If we knew any better, we would say that he had no right in pursuing a relationship with a girl such as this. But to his credit, he does eventually get his life figured out just enough to begin to see her.

It’s these interludes of Stolen Kisses that we might say puppy love is bubbling up. There are furtive glances. Breakfast at the kitchen table. Walks through the neighborhood park together. It feels like a little slice of paradise and even in their utter differences, it seems that Antoine and Christine might make a life together. Perhaps they were even made for each other after all.

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In Bed & Board (1970), the next installment in the series, the couple is now married and rather happily so. They have a baby and he has a flower shop and she teaches violin lessons. But they have each other and they are content. Reading in bed together after the day’s activities are over or eating a dinner of baby food because going to the store like adults is far too difficult.  How could Antoine not be happy with a wife such as this?

However, he is always plagued by inner demons and infidelities. In this case, dismantling his marriage and all that is good with his life with another woman. But part of what makes Christine phenomenal is the immense grace in which she handles Antoine. Again and again, we are reminded of just how much he does not deserve her and yet she sees something in him that is worthwhile and worth staying with. If nothing else, she makes us appreciate Antoine as a protagonist, blessing him with a human side, and suggesting there are still some redeeming qualities left in him.  So by the film’s end despite the turmoil and turbulence, they went through, they still have enough affection to stay together.

In Truffaut’s final installment Love on the Run (1979), the passage of time is not so kind to them as is often the case with life. But what stays the same is Christine (and unfortunately Antoine too). She remains a caring figure lighting up the screen with her charm, youthful exuberance, and quiet dignity even with she is slighted.

I will end by quoting the eminent critic Pauline Kael who noted in one of her reviews that Claude Jade was “a less ethereal, more practical Catherine Deneuve.” If I’d have to wager a guess on what she was getting at, it would probably be something along these lines. Deneuve was always this aloof beauty who exists in almost a different stratosphere and if we might be so bold to make the assumption, she feels almost unattainable. Maybe she doesn’t live in the same world that we do. Hers is a cinematic existence. But Jade in her playful winks and everyday interactions makes us feel like we know her well.

Because her life with Antoine is not unlike our own in some respects. That makes us appreciate her immensely and adore her even moreso because she feels like one of us. Deneuve is revered because she is beautiful in an elegant way. She would never be one to get her hands dirty. But with Jade, there’s that immediate connection. Rather than create a dichotomy however between “ethereal” and “practical” I’d much rather say that I appreciate them both and the impact that they both had on French cinema.  Antoine Doinel, sometimes I think you’re an idiot. In fact, I know so. How could you not remain true to a woman with a face like that?

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This is my entry in the Reel Infatuation Blogathon….