Kings Row (1942)

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Kings Row is apparently a good place to live. The billboard in town says as much. It’s the goings-on in the community that tells a different story — providing a conflicting more subversive view of small-town America.

The story starts out with 5 children. It feels like we hardly get to know them before they are already grown. For some, it feels like we hardly get to know them, period. Robert Cummings is Parris, a fresh-faced polite young man who still exudes a naive innocence and he manages it at 31 years of age. He certainly doesn’t look it.

Those qualities are precisely what is called for in Kings Row, a film directed by Sam Wood (The Devil and Miss Jones) that feels like an enigma — a sprawling coming-of-age drama that dares to show the dark underbelly of society in a very patriotic time.

Despite being hampered by the Hays Codes and its gatekeeper Joseph Breen, Casey Robinson’s script is still a fairly adequate adaption. It comes off surprisingly frank for a mainstream success during the war years even if it can’t quite cover all the vast territory the book undoubtedly expounded upon. But it was a notable forerunner of such pictures as Peyton Place (1957) or even Blue Velvet (1986) years later. It does not shy away from cancer, death, suicide, psychological duress, and all sorts of malice.

Cummings is joined by Ronald Reagan playing his best buddy Drake McHugh, an affable straight shooter with that winning Reagan charisma. Reagan and Ann Sheridan prove to be a great delight with undeniable chemistry if not for the fact that they don’t actually share a scene until well into the picture. In normal circumstances, you would say they’d make a happy couple.

Meanwhile, Cassandra Towers (Betty Field) and Lousie Gordon (Nancy Coleman) seem at the fringes of the narrative if not all but forgotten. Cassandra was formerly Parrises sweetheart when they were kids. But her family is ostracized in town because her unseen mother has mental problems and her father (Claude Rains) pulls his daughter out of school. Parris doesn’t get to see her until years later when he’s under the doctor’s tutelage. He learns to admire the man but that doesn’t make the family dynamic any less disconcerting.

Likewise, before setting his sights on Randy Monaghan (Sheridan) from the other side of the railroad tracks, Drake had his eye on Louise but her parents, Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) and his wife (Judith Anderson), were vehemently against such a union. They believe Drake to be unscrupulous, fearing what others will say about his nighttime buggy rides.

Not to be outdone, Drake gets over his first love and moves on with his life. It’s one of the most satisfying parts of the picture. He seems genuinely content. Though he is miles away in Vienna, Parris is continuing his aspirations of becoming the first psychiatrist in his hometown.

But Kings Row remains a coiled spring of melodrama quickly catapulting from romance to drama back to passion then darkness and romance again. Drake’s life back home turns morosely tragic giving rise to the line that would define Reagan’s career, “Where’s the rest of me!”

James Wong Howes’ photography is A-grade as per usual. The shades of melodrama are his to dictate and he does it exquisitely suggesting tonalities with every composition. The well-remembered score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold has an undisputed majesty which seems to be echoed in some of John Williams most resplendent works from Superman to Star Wars.

There is so much that goes as unspoken subtext in the movie, simultaneously helping and hindering the final outcome. Easily forgotten are the troubling parent-daughter relationships with brokenness at the seams. Claude Rains appears in a very severe role as Dr. Towers who seems like a good man but in the same breath, he still has some lifelong demons he cannot contend with.

Charles Coburn is positively acerbic, channeling every bit of malevolence he can muster. It’s another small but markedly different role than his usual cantankerous or avuncular comics. The trifecta of supporting talent is rounded out by Judith Anderson who only has a couple scenes but they paint a picture of yet another strained mother-daughter dynamic. These issues provide an alternative unnerving layer to the drama but there are so many other subjects to be broached so these feel muddled.

Kings Row barrels towards a lightning fast conclusion that looks to resolve the film’s entire length in a matter of a few moments and that proves to be a heady proposition. An almost unnaturally joyous ending cannot quite tie up all the loose ends and the questions we may still have as outsiders trying to come to grips with this world. But there is one that does become evident and one thread of morality that shows itself.

Humanity was not made to live paralyzed by gossip, hearsay, and secrets that can never be completely rectified. Instead, what we can do is bring all that is in the darkness into the light and do our best to hold on dearly to our relationships.

Because strains of hypocrisy, sickness, and pernicious intent will look to undermine our happiness until the end of time. One of the keys is striving for a life that takes the hardship and comes out of it with a continued zeal for life. Battling all that is depressed and despondent with a spirit of pure integrity.

So while there’s still something unspeakably unsatisfying about Kings Row that’s not to take away from its positive outcomes. Just seeing a smile cross Ronald Reagan’s face once more almost feels like it’s enough. I still remember going to the Reagan Library and watching some clips from Kings Row, a film he likened to his best work. Now many years later I can finally say I’ve seen it for myself.

3.5/5 Stars

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

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I’ll lay my cards right on the table. I’ve never been a huge fan of Robert Montgomery. He just doesn’t have a charisma or a delivery that I much care for so as far as carrying a whole picture I’m not quite sold.

Still, with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, it all seems to work and it’s funny and clever in ways that would cause Hollywood to strive for storytelling that looked to think outside the box. Of course, the irony is, a new box gets created for people to work inside — a new style or sub-genre — but there’s little question that Here Comes Mr. Jordan feels very much the first of its kind. If not, I stand corrected.

It’s a story effortlessly built around quirky inventiveness. There are fantasy elements here that feel very much akin to the likes of Stairway to Heaven (1946), Random Harvest (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (both films from 1943 and 78).

Heaven is depicted as a kind of celestial processing center where human beings are plucked away from their life on earth to begin a new afterlife. Through intervention, by angelic beings, lovers can all but forget one another only to have some deja vu feeling that they’ve been together before.

And further still, the ideas of the heavenly and angels entering into everyday life soon became a staple of 40s and 50s Hollywood much in part to this picture. Without it, there’s a possibility that classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and the Bishop’s Wife (1947) would not have been conceived in their most remembered forms. After all, what would those films be without Clarence or Dudley? Or what would this one be without Mr. Jordan for that matter?

Elaine May must have thought the story was ripe for more exploration too when she penned Heaven Can Wait which expanded a great many of these ideas only in a different context.

Unequivocably this rendition proves to be far from a one trick pony, taking a main conceit that admittedly seems absurd at first — even gimmicky — and turning it into a fantastical comedy with continual possibilities.

Imagine just for one moment that a feisty boxer, Joe Pendelton (Montgomery), preparing for his next big bout flies to the site of the fight only to have his plane malfunction en route. He looks like a goner but he’s pulled from the aircraft too soon by 7013 (Edward Everett Horton). In fact, it’s 50 years too early, his date with the afterlife is not until 1991 (In case you were wondering, Montgomery actually passed away in 1981). Being the bullish personality that he is, Joe’s not going to sit by when he had such a good thing going on earth.

The genial Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) grants his wish and inserts Joe back into life but they must find him a new body — you see his previous one has already been cremated which makes for added complications.

We plot his journey between two distinct individuals and their bodies and aside from the opening plane crash, a few puffs of smoke, and a few parlor tricks, the film doesn’t rely too heavily on any amount of special effects. For all intent and purposes, things are normal as they’ve always been. It’s just the parameters that have changed. Namely the fact that Joe can see Mr. Jordan and no one else can. First, he’s Bruce Farnsworth formerly a crooked magnate who was murdered in his bathtub by his wife and her lover.

Boy, are they surprised when he turns up again. Mr. Jordan and the audience see Montgomery but the others see and hear the man that they think they’ve done away with. Still, coaxed by Mr. Jordan, Joe or Farnsworth, turns this man’s life around, taking ownership of his past indiscretions and helping the father of a young woman (Evelyn Keyes) who was accused of fraud.

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Meanwhile, Joe, err, Farnsworth still has his sights on his previous shot at the boxing ring. It all comes off rather odd to those who used to know his alter ego but he calls up his old coach Max Corkle (James Gleason) and he’s finally able to convince him of his true identity due to his beloved saxophone always in tow.

Finally, it looks like he’s on the road that he wants but alas complications ensue. He finds himself falling for Ms. Logan and circumstances are such that he must find another body. He settles on a straight-arrow named Murdoch and subsequently gives the fighter a second chance in the ring while hiring on Max to be his coach so he can still actualize his dreams.

Mr. Jordan leaves Joe in this moment, seeing he has a version of the life he always wanted and the celestial being conveniently removes all of Joe’s memories of a previous life. Of being a man named Joe Pendleton. It makes for some goofy comedy with Corkle and supplies one budding meet-cute with Ms. Logan.

While the theology is probably sketchy at best, it’s a good-natured, comic interpretation of the afterlife that serves the world of the film well. The only thing in question is the ethical nature of angels removing human memories but surely Claude Rains knows what he is doing.

James Gleason is an absolute riot as the one human privy to the whole gag only to look like a complete nutcase when questioned by anyone else who is “normal.” He easily puts you in stitches and Edward Everett Horton has his flustered indignance down pat. He made a career out of it after all.

4/5 Stars

Four Daughters (1938)

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The entire packaging of this Warner Bros. film includes director Michael Curtiz, screenwriter Julius Epstein, composer Max Steiner, and Claude Rains all who (not unsurprisingly) would have their hand in that revered classic Casablanca (1942).

Here the Lane Sisters are joined in their quartet by Gale Page with Claude Rains playing the musical patriarch of his family who has trained his daughters up to be an orchestra right in his living room. He’s a belligerent but good-willed father with all his show of bluster merely a facade to hide a heart of pure gold. The role slightly subverts many of Rains’ typically even-keeled gentlemen.

Most of these opening sequences draw up just how quaint and delightful they all are together and what a perfect little life they share as the men begin to show up in their lives to call on them. Isn’t love grand? That’s what we might be prompted to surmise is the film’s main theme.

Four Daughters teeters perilously on the edge of being insufferably schmaltzy to its core and yet it seems that the arrival of John Garfield and the insertion of his character into this idyllic world of giggling girls and small-town romance is just enough to save this story and make into something worth remembering.

Mickey Boyd (Garfield) walks into their home as an acerbic outsider who thrums his nose at the picture-perfect American family in their quintessential American home but he also has a gift for the piano and as musicians themselves, that’s an instant point of connection. Furthermore, he’s come into town as a favor to his old colleague Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn) who happens to be a close family friend and maybe one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met, either onscreen or off.

Still, Mickey is a tough one to crack but that doesn’t keep the maternal Aunt Etta (May Robson) or vivacious young Ann (Priscilla Lane) from trying their best to figure him out. In fact, Mickey becomes a bit of a pet project for Ann as she looks to slowly transform him into an honest to goodness genial human being. She does a fairly good job at it too as he is brought into the fold of the family for every subsequent round of holiday festivities.

The second act proves to be the most potent and whether or not the turn of events are truly probable does not detract from how affecting these sequences turn out to be. And ironically, at the center of it all are Mickey and Ann. The man who has always been the outsider looking in and the youngest sister full of playful precociousness. He is the one who helps her see things as they actually are and she, in turn, continually spruces up his life and to use an inane phrase, she “turns his frown upside down.”

But I think that’s the key to the final act of Four Daughters. It’s dramatic but it loses that almost sickening layer of sugarcoating and shocks everyone within the frame of the film back to the reality of the world with one tragic event or two events depending on what you deem the tragedy to be. This doesn’t simply feel like a mere play for our emotions — though it might be partially this — but it’s really a bit of a representation of what life actually throws our way.

That’s why Mickey is by far the most important character in this picture and he’s so necessary for it to be anything more than typical Hollywood fare because in some sense John Garfield makes that man into a real person. He’s not necessarily a bad fellow. In fact, we kind of like him because he seems a bit sardonic, frank, and he’s not going out trying to be something that he’s not.

True, the Hollywood happy ending is tacked on as we come to expect but perhaps in the closing moments, as the sisters look through the drawing room window and Ann is back to her gate-swinging ways with her beau as before, we can gain some satisfaction in the moment. Not simply because all is right in this little universe but the family went through trials and now are better for it — more attuned to the world. They are no longer simply four daughters or soon to be four wives. They are four women.

The film was dressed up in Technicolor in Young at Heart (1954) with Doris Day and Frank Sinatra and Sinatra elevated that film much as Garfield does here. His tune “All the Way” while having no bearing on the plot is nevertheless a memorable number. I have nothing against Mr. Lemp’s taste in music nor his disdain for the contemporary bilge of his day but I rather like the crooners myself.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Review: Notorious (1946)

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I never put much stock in a Hitchcock title out of force of habit or lack thereof because he never seemed to. But thinking on Notorious I came to the rather unextraordinary epiphany that it refers to lovely Ingrid Bergman as much as any Nazi, at least from a certain perspective.

In the film, she plays the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who was put on trial and found guilty. She, however, is not implicated in his deeds. Instead, busying herself with having a good time, drinking, dancing, laughing — all the superficial pursuits that can distract her from a post-atomic world. You might even say her reputation precedes her and that provides the framework for how others see Ms. Huberman. Namely, one government agent named Devlin, put on her case and writing her off early on as a certain kind of woman.

There’s that initial shot at one of her parties where all the guests are dancing and drinking and everything’s jovial and there Cary Grant sits on the edge of the frame just his profile identifiable to us. And the beauty of the scene is that Ingrid Bergman starts talking to him but instead of showing us his face Hitchcock elects to wait until everyone is gone and they’re sitting together in the next scene. But already there’s this implicit sense that there’s something unusual about this man even without putting words to it.

In the subsequent scene, we get our first view of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together and how wonderful they look. But Bergman’s character makes an off-handed remark about love songs, about how they’re a bunch of “hooey.” Of course, that pertains to this film and where it will decide to go in the realms of romance, but in my own mind, I see it also functioning as a reaction to Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By” — a film where lovers fell in love partially because of a song.

It’s easy to put the title of a spiritual sequel on Notorious for numerous reasons. Once again we have Bergman and Rains in crucial roles and then trading out Bogey for another legend in his own right, Cary Grant. The paranoia of Casablanca is replaced with the sunnier disposition of Rio de Janeiro which nevertheless is underlined by a certain looming Cold War menace. In this case, instead of the letters of transit, we are provided a Hitchcock MacGuffin, including a bottle of wine, some uranium, and an iconic UNICA key.

But if nothing else these minor remarks can put the debate to rest conclusively. Notorious is a spectacular film in its own right and it enters some similar yet still uncharted territory in accordance with the waters Casablanca chose to ford a few years prior. Meanwhile, Grant has glimpses of his previous self from other films but soon enough he falls into the role of cool and calculated federal agent Devlin in what feels like a true departure.

There’s that supremely unnerving shot as we take on the perspective of a disoriented Ingrid Bergman as Grant walks into the room and hangs over her in a strangely alarming way. Everything is setting up the dynamic at this point.

Still, others will remember the extended make-out session that made history by upholding the Hays Code ” three-second rule” while simultaneously perfectly encapsulating nearly an entire romance in a matter of four or five minutes. There was little else to be said because it was all seen in that one sequence and Hitchcock could proceed with his conceit.

Because, ultimately, Hitchcock’s picture is built around this idea: The American government has a little job to be done and Alicia and Devlin are caught in the middle. Thus, it becomes that time-worn idea of love versus duty. In one sense, Devlin’s caught in a terrible position and yet in the other he treats Alicia so badly — and it’s not simply that this is Alicia but this is beautiful, sweet Ingrid Bergman that he is pushing away. Still, in pushing her away, it’s leading her toward the objective.

He’s simply not willing to dictate anything because that means being vulnerable. Very simply he’s not willing to open up.  Cary Grant has never felt so icy, so aloof, and so unfeeling. Then, on top of this, Sebastian (Rains) looks a far more agreeable fellow cast in such a light. He genuinely loves this woman even if she is a spy. It makes for a conflicted viewing experience.

Though there is a juncture in the film where Devlin is beginning to shift his way of thinking. But as if on cue (undoubtedly) one line of dialogue out of Alicia’s mouth during a racetrack exchange (“You can add Sebastian to my list of playmates”) poisons his whole frame of mind again. His prior opinions of Alicia are confirmed and he sours to her — never giving her the benefit of the doubt from that point forward — and ultimately torturing her so that there is no other choice.

Just like that, she goes through with it. Instigating her relationship with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) and succeeding so thoroughly that she’s married to him soon enough. For the U.S. government this is a smashing success but for Alicia and Devlin it’s nothing of the sort.

The descending stairwell crane shot is textbook Hitchcock and so often cited but it’s for that very reason. He so directly points us toward the cues of the scene and he does it with his usual technical elegance.

He gives us a party but it’s a party underlined with so much tension because there are stakes that go beyond the nominal appearances. There’s the fact that Devlin’s one of the party guests but also Alicia has that all important key that proves to be their chance to figure out what Sebastian is hiding. But it also makes them far more suspicious.

Beset with paranoia as much as illness she’s suffocated by the presence of her husband and mother-in-law. It looks like Devlin will never come to her. But he does. We’ve seen this before. Cary Grant comes to her bed as she lies there disoriented and looks up into the eyes of this man looking to be her savior instead of opting to use her. At least on one account, the tension has been resolved.

But in the same breath never has there been so much sympathy as for Claud Rains in the closing moment indicative of how Hitch has even given his purported villain a chance to be sympathized with and Rain’s typically compelling performance does precisely that. So even in this final moment, Hitchcock is playing with us giving us that Hollywood ending that we desire and at the same time undermining it in a wonderful way that’s both suspenseful and artistically arresting.

Notorious just might be the Master’s purest expression of his art lacking the micromanagement of Selznick in Rebecca (1940), the technical experiments of Rear Window (1954), the psycho-sexual layers of Vertigo (1958), the man-on-the-run motif of North by Northwest (1959), or even the low budget and marketing frenzy of Psycho (1960), while still garnering the highest production values in its day.  The results speak for themselves, positioning Notorious as one of the definitive romantic thrillers by any standard.

5/5 Stars

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_cropThe opening credits roll and recognition comes with each name that pops on the screen. Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Porter Hall, Charles Lane, William Demarest, Jack Carson, and of course, Frank Capra himself.

We are met with the ubiquitous visage of Charles Lane calling in a big scoop on the telephone. A senator has died suddenly. The likes of Porter Hall and H.B. Warner fill the Senate Chamber presided over by a wryly comic VP, Harry Carey. Corruption is personified by the flabby pair of Edward Arnold and Eugene Palette while Claude Rains embodies the tortured political journeyman. The eminent members of the press include not only Lane but the often swacked Thomas Mitchell and a particularly cheeky Jack Carson.

To some people, these are just names much like any other but to others of us, linked together and placed in one film, these figures elicit immense significance and simultaneously help to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most satisfying creations of Hollywood’s Golden Age from arguably “The Greatest Year in Cinematic History.”  The acting from the biggest to the smallest role is a sheer joy to observe as is Capra’s candid approach to the material.

As someone with a deep affection for film’s continued impact, it gives me great pleasure that stories such as Mr. Smith exist on the silver screen if only for the simple fact that they continually renew my belief in humanity, whatever that means. Because it’s an admittedly broad, sweeping statement to make but then again that’s what Frank Capra was always phenomenally skilled at doing. He could take feelings, emotions, beliefs, and ideals synthesizing them into the perfect cultural concoctions commonly known as moving pictures.

But his pictures always maintained an unfaltering optimism notably in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations. He never disregarded the corruption dwelling in his stories–it was always there–in this case personified by the stifling political machine of Jim Taylor gorging itself off the lives of the weak and stupid.

The key is that his narratives always rise above the graft and corruption. They latch onto the common everyday decency, looking out for the other guy, and in some small way uphold the great commandment to love thy neighbor.

Politics have never been my forte. Like many others, I’m easily disillusioned by “politics” as this becomes a dirty word full of arrogance, partisanship, and scandal among other issues. It seems like the founding principles that laid the groundwork for this entire democracy often get buried under pomp & circumstance or even worse personal ambitions.

Although this film was shot over 75 years ago everyone who’s been around the block lives as if that’s the case then too and so they’re not all that different from today at least where it matters. Cynicism is a hard thing to crack when it runs through the fabric of society from the politicians, to the newspapers, all the way down to the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. Still, the genuine qualities of a man like Jefferson Smith can act as a bit of an antidote. He as a character himself might be a bit of an ideal, yes, but I’d like to have enough faith to believe that people with a little bit of Jefferson Smith might still live today.

Common, everyday people who nevertheless are capable of extraordinary things like standing up for what’s right when they know that no one else will or when they know all that waits for them at the end of the tunnel is disgrace. But the promise of what is beyond the tunnel is enough. That is true integrity to be able to do that and those are the causes worth cheering for when David must fight Goliath and still he somehow manages to overcome. That’s the chord Mr. Smith strikes with me. thanks in part to Capra’s vision but also Stewart’s impassioned embodiment of those same ideals.  He has a knack for compelling performances to be sure.

Time and time again James Stewart pulls me in. His career is one of the most iconic in any decade, any era no questions asked. There are so many extraordinary films within that context perhaps many that are technically or artistically superior to Mr. Smith by some  estimations, but he was never more candid or disarming than those final moments in the senate chambers as he fights for his life — clinging to the ideals that he’s been such a stalwart proponent for even as his naivete has been mercilessly stripped away from him.

In the opening moments, his eyes carried that glow of honest to goodness optimism, his posture gangly and unsure represented all that is genuine in man. Now watching those same ideals and heroes come back to perniciously attack him, he presides with almost reckless abandon. Is he out of his mind? At times, it seems so, but as he wearies, his hair becomes more disheveled, and his vocal chords have only a few rasps left he still fights the good fight. There’s an earnest zeal to him that’s positively palpable.

As our stand-in, Saunders (Jean Arthur) first writes him off as a first class phony or at the very least a political stooge ready to do another man’s bidding but she does not know Jefferson Smith though she does grow to love him. And Arthur’s performance truly is a masterful one because without her Smith would hardly be the same figure. She brings out his naivete by sheer juxtaposition but she also puts the fight back into him because he brought a change over her that in turn rallies him to keep on pushing. They’ve got a bit of a mutually symbiotic relationship going on in the best way possible. You might call it love.

Capra repeatedly underlines Smith’s honesty and genuine nature not only through numerous rather simplistic montages of Capitol Hill and the surrounding national monuments but in the very way his character carries himself around others. He never assumes a position of superiority. He’s always humble. He sees the inherent need to raise up young people well so that they might progress to become the leaders of tomorrow with a great deal to offer our world. He fumbles with his hat in the presence of pretty girls and holds his idols in the highest esteem. It’s all there on Stewart’s face and in his actions. We too comprehend the solemnity and the gravity that he senses in the office of the Senate.

While this was not Jimmy Stewart’s debut and it was only at the beginning of a shining career as has already been noted, it was in these moments that the cinematic world fell in love with him. He can’t be licked and for good reason. He was never one to give up on lost causes just like his father before him.

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. ~ James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

5/5 Stars

Casablanca (1942): 75th Anniversary Review

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When someone inquires if I consider Casablanca one of my favorite movies, I don’t quite know how to respond. Yes, I do love this film passionately but I feel as if Casablanca is more deeply America’s favorite classic movie. It is not for me to call my own and I will gladly share a joint appreciation for it. Because it’s a film for all of us. As it should be. It’s the perfect articulation and expression of that former Hollywood that existed during the studio age as brought to us by Michael Curtiz.

When we are finally allowed to enter into Rick’s Cafe Americain, it almost feels like hallowed ground. It’s a mythical place that never existed in reality and yet feels so immersive to us as an audience. Curtiz moves through the space with such intent that it makes us completely involved with every person his camera settles on. This is a picture for romantics and sentimentalists to be sure but it caters to those with a cynical edge too. It suggests a deceitful world of pickpockets, unscrupulous officials, and of course, Nazis.

The political tides of the times are reflected in that cinematic bastion of a man Rick Blaine (Bogart). His foreign policy is that he sticks his neck out for no one. But that’s only on the surface. That’s the beauty of the character. There’s a sensitivity and a sacrificial nature that wells up deep inside him, hidden from view. Tortured and embittered as he is, that is not the last word.

There’s also an undeniable undercurrent to the film. Yes, this is not reality. As enveloping as it is, this is wholly a Warner Bros. aesthetic but moreover there’s a sense that the emotions that deluge over Casablanca are very real.

Aside from Bogart and the lovely, incomparable Ingrid Bergman, our cast is made up of a plethora of emigres, men and women, who fled the Nazis for this reason or that. Whether they were Jewish or had different political affiliations or just couldn’t bear to live under such an oppressive regime.

Director Michael Curtiz was originally from Hungary and in him, we find someone who totally understood the plight of those fleeing and the context of the moment where Casablanca was only a pitstop for America. Because take the picture out of its context and something would be lost. Firmly plant it in the era and you have blessed the production with something enduringly special.

Furthermore, in the scene where Lazlo (Paul Henreid) calls on the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out the German’s proud merrimaking it ceases to be a mere scene in a film but becomes an event that swells with real emotions. You can see it in the very body language, the tears in the eyes, and the fervor that comes over everyone. Madeleine Lebeau (the film’s last surviving cast member who passed away last year) singing defiantly, with the tears freely flowing. No longer acting but pure feelings incarnate.

When so many other minority characters make me cringe in pictures of the 30s and 40s, Sam, the piano man (Dooley Wilson), remarkably rarely does. That’s because he’s endowed with a certain autonomy attributed to him in part by Blaine. They are partners, friends, and they watch out for each other.

His singing holds the love story together. Like many of the film’s greatest faces, he’s not a mere sideshow attraction. There’s a necessity to his characterization that adds another dimension to the world that has been conjured up on the Warner Bros. lot. What would Casablanca be without Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sazall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, etc.? It would lose so much color — so much definition.

Another joy of the picture after you see it too many times to count is the continued relish of the script, waiting for your favorite lines only to be taken with new quips that you never picked up on before. For me, most lines of this nature come from the wonderfully amoral and yet completely personable Captain Renault (Claude Rains). But there’s also so much going on around the edges of the frame. One of my favorites involves the young woman who fled from Bulgaria with her husband. The young lady is played by Jack Warner’s step-daughter Joy Page.

Here we see a relationship that mirrors that of Rick and Elsa in a way that only becomes apparent later on. Because she is a woman desperate to get to America with her impoverished husband. He is trying to win money gambling but it’s a desperate even futile situation.

She loves him so much, she is willing to try and use her own beauty and the influence of another man, Inspector Renault to help the man she truly loves. There’s so much subtext to the scene written with the production codes in mind and the sincerity is immediately evident even if some of the import can be lost on us. The same can be said for the foreshadowing.

Part of what makes the picture’s final act work is the fact that Lazlo is such a decent human being. He loves his wife so much, he’s willing to have Blaine take her to safety by using the Letters of Transit if need be. Thus, this dichotomy is set up and Rick must make a decision. He must do the thinking for both of them but that request from Lazlo saves Rick’s reputation no matter the decision that he makes. We know that either might be right. Even though deep in our hearts, there’s only one denouement we want.

Did I even need to write this review? Certainly not but it’s more for my sake than anyone else’s. Casablanca is a dear friend of mine and after 75 years it still comes up smelling like roses. Its themes are timeless in the sense that it allows romance to be its guiding light while still tempering it with the disillusionment and licentiousness that often is so prevalent in this world of ours. That makes its bittersweet interludes ring with a certain deep-seated truth that never comes off as fake. It’s as evocative and witty now as it was in 1942. Perhaps even more so.

5/5 Stars

The Wolf Man (1941)

The-wolfman.jpgEven a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.

Universal had an impressive catalogue of horror films during the 30s and 40s that integrated gothic and science fiction themes into stories such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Invisible Man. The Wolf Man can be considered part of that same dynasty and it established Lon Chaney Jr. much like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi before him, as a horror film staple. He was the Wolf Man as Karloff was Frankenstein’s Monster and Lugosi was Dracula. That’s how it worked.

What makes many of these films compelling is how they take myth and ground it in a believable reality. Fact and fiction becomes homogenized in a sense and such a world is a wonderful place to draw out horror. Because it can be supernatural, otherwordly, and frightening but it also hits close to home since there is a shred of truth always visible.

In this case, the film opens with the prodigal son, the lumbering, good-natured Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returning to the estate of his well to do father Sir John (Claude Rains). There’s some mention of a dead brother and a hunting accident–some tragic events. This is what brought Larry home and he seems to have patched things up well enough with his dad. As they say, time heals all wounds and it’s easy enough to dismiss it with that.

Anyways, life seems generally good. He’s getting acclimated with the quaint town of Lianwilly and he conveniently spies a girl working in her father’s shop across the way, the pretty ingenue Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) who happens to be already engaged. But that doesn’t stop her from wanting to spend time with him because he really is a giant teddy bear with nary a violent bone in his body.

This is the preexisting world that the story develops only to be thrown off its axis by a telling event. It’s the origin of Larry’s troubles and they begin with a visit to a gypsy caravan, ending with him incurring a bite from a killer wolf. But the implications are much more ominous and deep-seated than that.

Because the trauma begins to eat away at him and his father though the local doctor sees his change of state as merely a psychological issue. Something he can be cured of. He’s only misguided–a little wrong in the head. They fail to see the full manifestations of his new sickness which transform him and lead him off into the night seeking after victims.

But if The Wolfman was simply an excuse to see a beast, it’s hard to gather that the film would have resonated with anyone then or now. In fact, this film is very much comparable to the superhero films we are so accustomed to now. The great installments are made that way by compelling characters and solid storytelling.

Curt Siodmak the brother of famed film noir director Robert Siodmak must be commended on his script which in a mere 70 minutes develops a streamlined story line full of a certain moodiness. To his credit, he helped lay the foundation for a whole legend that has become the standard archetype for any narratives involving werewolves.

The very fact the little poem uttered throughout the film is practically omnipresent, conjured up by so many individuals, works as a fitting harbinger of things to come. Meanwhile, the gypsies played by (Bela Lugosi) in an unfortunately relegated role and Maria Ouspenska, while pigeon-holed takes on the role of mystical soothsayers with ease. Throw in silver bullets, silver-headed walking sticks, and pentagrams and you have all the necessary touchstones (except full moons). Apparently that comes later.

Furthermore, the general atmosphere, time lapse effects, and painstaking makeup work of Jack Pierce all contribute to the heady brew. Perhaps because it is precisely these things that will make some disdain the horror genre with scorn that actually imbue a B-picture such as this a surprisingly engaging aura. It’s very much a part of the mythology that has been built around these monster movies and while meeting our expectations in a sense, that’s only a small, albeit integral part of this story.

Because, everything must ultimately return back to Lon Chaney’s performance as the genial giant Larry Talbot. He’s the complete antithesis of a monster. It’s not what he wants to be and he proves to have such a strong capacity for love. He keeps short accounts and he has a tremendous urge to protect others from harm. It’s innate in him. That’s what makes his ghastly transformation so devastating. Literally no one sees it coming (except Maleva) and you can attribute that to pure ignorance or you could go out on a limb and say it’s because Larry comes off as a genuinely good human being. By the film’s conclusion we feel truly sorry for him and that’s the key

But if we dare take the metaphor further still, I suppose we could say that his curse was a physical manifestation–reflecting the animalistic evil that can be inside of any person.  The stuff that’s churning inside of our being at any given time. That cauldron of dark desires bubbling up. That’s what makes the dividing line between the physical and psychological so interesting in The Wolf Man. Normally they exist in separate spheres but in some ways this film makes them one in the same.

4/5 Stars

 

Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

the adventures of robin hood 1As a young boy, no hero was greater in my mind’s eye than Robin Hood and only Star Wars held a more honored spot in my childhood imagination. Because, to this day, Robin of Locksley remains the quintessential hero of mythical lore. Part historical truth mostly canonized myth and that’s the beauty of him. We can believe in him — see how he was in so many ways real but in the same instance larger than life.

To his credit, Erroll Flynn does a surprisingly phenomenal job in portraying the legendary outlaw in Lincoln green with a bit of British (Australian…) cheekiness, as well as bravado and charm. In fact, the film is full of so many wonderful elements from its engaging action sequences full of timeless spectacle and a plethora of characters who come right off the pages of the greatest Robin Hood narratives. Will Scarlett, Much the Miller, Friar Tuck and of course Little John still hold a great deal of esteem in my heart. While there are no men more villainous and corrupted than the likes of Prince John (Claude Rains), The Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone).

Meanwhile, Michael Curtiz took the reigns of the film and makes it a lively swashbuckler that revels in a sense of good fun and that starts with Flynn’s performance radiating out from there. While this early use of three-strip Technicolor only serves to add yet another layer of elegance and vibrancy to the film’s look. It truly was made for color and every shade of Lincoln green and every bit of medieval opulence proves to be a feather in the film’s cap. It looks absolutely stunning and the same goes for young Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian.

Olivia_de_Havilland_and_Errol_Flynn_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailerFrom what I know from Robin Hood folklore, specifically Howard Pyle’s seminal edition, the film is surprisingly true to many of the origin stories and tales that have long since proliferated. As an audience, we become privy to the first meetings of Robin and the formidable Little John (Alan Hale) who lays him out in the local stream after a bout with quarterstaffs. Then, in another instance, Robin provokes the portly Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette) who happens to be a master swordsman and a lover of good food and drink. Still, other vignettes include Robin’s successful masquerade as a lowly archer who wins the grand prize at the Sheriff of Nottingham’s Archery Tournament.

Of course, the most thrilling set pieces occur in Nottingham Castle, initially when Robin brazenly drops in on Prince John and his cronies bearing a deer over his shoulders. Admittedly I have Star Wars on the mind, but this sequence is rather reminiscent of Luke wandering into Jabba’s Palace.

Then, the climax comes later with the return of King Richard and Robin’s assault on the castle full of stellar swordplay and general chaos. The duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone is especially thrilling and it holds up well even today because there is something so satisfying in watching them thrust and feint back and forth.

the adventures of robin hood 2For me, the reason very few heroes surpass Robin Hood is based on his innumerable qualities. He’s a superior fighter with bow, sword or staff. He’s blessed with a wonderful wit and impressive leadership capabilities. He wins over the girl with his charm. He gets to live out in the forest with his best friends, eating great food. But most of all, he’s a rebel with a heart of gold, robbing the rich to feed the poor.

He’s an embodiment of all things that a little boy dreams of as a kid and in many ways, he’s a fairy tale, but the kind of fairy tale that a boy readily conjures up in his own imagination. The villains are formidable and the action is unmistakable, but it’s all in good fun. That’s why the Adventures of Robin Hood remains an enduring folk tale of the cinema. Its hero transcends a single medium. Because he lives in the heart of many a young lad long after the title credits have rolled.

5/5 Stars

Notorious (1946) – Alfred Hitchcock

dc86a-notorious_posterPairing Cary Grant with Ingrid Bergman along with Hitchcock directing, Notorious tells a story of spies in South America after World War II. Bergman is the daughter of a former Nazi so she is enlisted by a T.R. Devlin (Grant) to spy on other Nazis in South America. Pretty soon Bergman has been accepted and is married to one of the men (Claude Rains). Bitter and cold, Devlin shows no pity for her plight. However, during a party an important discovery is made that puts her in danger. To make matters worse, she is now sick and the others are suspicious. Showing his true loyalty, Devlin comes to her aid before she is harmed and brings her to safety.

To some extent we feel for Claude Rains who will be terminated if it ever comes out he married a spy and that pity is a credit to his portrayal. This film also seems to speak well of Grant as an actor since he plays so against type here. Hitchcock memorable used the key in the film to move the plot forward effectively. Aside from that a couple of sequences stand out to me. The first occurs when Grant enters a room and then we have the POV of Bergman’s heroine. She is lying in bed and drunk so as he gets closer he appears up side down in the frame. Then, there is the famous kissing sequence that all happens simultaneously while Grant is on the phone. The final one I recall is the tracking shot at the party that closes in on the key hidden in Bergman’s hand. Hitchcock practically shoves it in our faces so we know its importance. I think these moments reflect the great direction and showmanship of Hitch.

Partially for this reason Notorious is undoubtedly one of Hitchcock’s best films with a truly stellar cast of characters. If Casablanca was the beginning of the story then this seems to be the perfect sequel. You have a WWII related plot, Bergman, Rains and Cary Grant to stand in for Bogart after all. But that is a topic for another post in the future!

5/5 Stars

Review: Casablanca (1942)

It was over 70 years ago that Casablanca hit the silver screen for the first time. All the main players are dead and gone now. The Golden Age of Hollywood, where pictures were being churned out with factory-like efficiency, has given way to a modern era of blockbusters. To borrow a quote from the movie, it doesn’t seem that one little film would “amount to a hill of beans” in our present world. Still, somehow Casablanca is beloved to this day, despite the numerous other films that have undoubtedly entered the black hole of film oblivion. It seemingly will not die and for good reason.

Considered one of the greatest films of all-time, this well-loved classic deserves to be here. It is the hallmark of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s careers. It also has one of the greatest scripts of all time, and it has achieved legendary status over the years. Many consider it purely the best film ever made and in all honesty, I would never try to refute that.
The film opens quickly and we are immersed in a world that is at the height of the Nazi terror, and many people are fleeing Europe by way of Casablanca. It is a treacherous place full of pickpockets, corrupt authorities, refugees, and naive tourists as well. Two German couriers have been murdered and some invaluable letters of transit have been stolen. That’s when we are first introduced to Rick’s Café Americain and its cynical proprietor Rick Blaine (Bogart).
A shady fellow named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) comes to Rick with the letters and asks Blaine to keep them for him. However, later that night Ugarte is taken into custody, and things begin to get even more complicated. Wanted resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is now in Casablanca, however, a Major Strasser has arrived from Germany to take him in. To top it off, Laszlo’s wife Ilsa (Bergman) was Blaine’s old flame in Paris and, needless to say, it didn’t end well.
Laszlo desperately needs the letters of transit to escape, and he inquires about them. Soon he is led to Blaine, but as Rick often admits he sticks his neck out for nobody. Knowing all too well that he is in danger, Laszlo still shows his defiance against his enemies by leading the people in a round of “La Marseillaise” and as a result, Rick’s is shut down.
All the memories of Paris begin flooding back, and then Ilsa confronts Rick in order to get the letters. This is possibly the most critical point in the film because this tense altercation ultimately renews the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. Rick asks her to trust him, and he begins to take things into his own hands. The results of his actions created one of the great romantic and cinematic moments in the history of film. The whole film leading up to this point hints at it, but Rick truly is a sentimentalist at heart. He can live with the notion that they will always have Paris and that leads him to commit a selfless act of love.
This film holds such a tremendous presence in movie history, and upon seeing the movie it makes complete sense what all the hype is about. What more could you want than Bogey, Bergman, Casablanca, and some of the greatest quotes ever uttered? Do not forget the corrupt, but nevertheless lovable French Captain Louis (Claude Rains), who delivers some terribly witty lines. Honestly, he may be my favorite character in the whole film, and that’s saying a lot!  Then, of course, there is the immortal tune of “As Time Goes By,” sung by Dooley Wilson which will forever be ingrained in film lore.
However, you also gain an appreciation for the other interesting characters of Casablanca, some comical, some sympathetic, and others despicable. We have a rogue gallery of everybody under the sun from Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, German soldiers, various guests, and all the staff at Rick’s Place. This movie has conflict and the uncertainty of war in practically every scene because at the time World War II was in full force. There are a broken romance and a forlorn hero who shows his courage in the end. As an audience, we come to realize the transformation of Rick into a truly great man. Ilsa on her part has the most radiant face I have ever seen.
 It is wonderful that Casablanca succeeds as entertainment despite the fact that it is not modern. In fact, part of its charm is the black and white cinematography that helps make Rick’s Café so atmospheric. It effectively makes each interior shot moodi34 and every romantic scene even more striking. I am very doubtful that they would ever be able to pull this film off in color. It just wouldn’t work.
You do not need explosions and violence either, only great characters and a story with both drama and humor to reel the audience in. Up until the final moments of the movie you are captivated the entire time. Then, fittingly, you are left with the two men walking off into the night with the words, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
In fact, with this film, my thoughts always go back to the script. Lines like “Here’s looking at you kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Round up the usual suspects” are so rampant that you cannot possibly remember them all, and I doubt there will ever be another film that is so immersed in American cultural lexicon. Still, many of my favorite lines in the film are those that get overshadowed by the more famous ones. That is the sign of an amazing film that never grows old. Even those who have not seen this classic film like to think they have, because the influence of Casablanca reaches everywhere. I guess I’m rather an idealist myself so I would like to think that even if 70 more years pass, we’ll always have Casablanca.