Shadow of The Thin Man (1941)

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Little Nick Charles Jr. is growing up and his loving daddy, in lieu of fairy tales, reads to his son about the horse races. Some things never change. Despite an unfortunate stereotyped-laden portrayal provided by Louise Beavers, the picture quickly settles into another enjoyable jaunt.

In fact, it’s a perfect day for the races until Nick gets pulled over for speeding. That’s only the beginning. Because the cop proves to be a big fan of Mr. Charles. After all, if we haven’t realized it already, he is a household name. Everybody seems to know him. Policemen, conmen, jockeys, and anyone else you can possibly pull out of a hat. It makes no difference. By now, his wife never shows an ounce of surprise. She only smiles, nods, trades pleasantries and never says another word about it.

The recurring gags keep coming with yet another former acquaintance with a grubby nickname like “Fingers” running into Nick and inquiring if the dame he has in tow is his new girlfriend. It seems like no one ever thought him one to get married.

It’s all good fun and there’s even the return of Nick’s old buddy, old pal, Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene reprising his role). This sense of world building and the introduction of characters was always The Thin Man series at its best, but there’s also business at hand — a jockey named Gomez has been whacked.

However, Nick tries to avoid getting pulled into yet another case by patronizing the arts, namely a wrestling match. It’s one of the film’s most delightful diversions but there’s also a sneaking suspicion it must tie into the case somehow. The forces lurking in the shadows hang over the racetrack murder like a stench and they’ve got there hands in all the places, including the press. Maybe even higher up too.

A youthful Donna Reed makes an early appearance as a naive secretary and while still growing as an actress, there’s no doubting her sincerity that always shined through in all her work. With writers Albert Hacket & Frances Goodrich, then James Stewart and Sheldon Leonard also involved in earlier installments, and Reed being featured here, it does seem The Thin Man was a bit of a training ground for It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

But back to the current business at hand. Molly’s beau Paul (Barry Nelson) is a prime suspect when murder strikes again. With the young couple right at the center of the mess, compassionate Nora wants her Nicky to get them out of it and that he does.

Also, tied up in the case are stuttering Rainbow Benny, famed acting instructor Stella Adler in one of her actual roles as Claire Porter, Frank Faylen as a nervous ticket booth operator, and you guessed it, a whole host of others.

Still, Nick finds time to get accosted by kids while taking Nick Jr. around on the carousel. While Asta’s best gag is getting trapped in a revolving door chasing after a fugitive. Myrna Loy doesn’t get as much screentime as she should but as usual she provides a calming and still slyly comic presence. The continuity provided by W.S. Van Dyke is there as well though this is the first script not penned by the screenwriting duo Hackett & Goodrich.

By now it’s all but inevitable. Everyone gets rounded up to the police precinct. Nick Charles takes center stage bringing wifey along and Lt. Abrams is in the middle of it all for good measure. But he’s really only the white noise and perfect stooge as Nick deduces his way to the finale as he always has. It’s true that the formula feels a tad overspent but seeing as Hollywood is used to beating dead horses to a pulp recently, this one doesn’t feel that bad. At least it’s a good time and we still have Powell and Loy as amiable as ever with a continous spritzing of humor.

3.5/5 Stars

Scandal Sheet (1952)

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There’s no need to mince words here. With a film christened Scandal Sheet you already have a good idea of what you’re probably going to get before it arrives. That’s fine. Straight to the point can be good.

But the media angle is only a half of it. It’s as much a film of lurid cover-ups and back-alley beatings as it is about dirty journalism. You need those lightning rods for a juicy scoop and it’s precisely these types of events that bring the newspaper hounds out of the woodwork.

If Samuel Fuller couldn’t wind up being the director of his original story, The Dark Page, then there’s arguably no better man to take up the project than Phil Karlson who has comparable sensibilities and an appreciation for gritty crime pictures and pulp fiction though he’s not quite as dynamic.

It’s true at one point Howard Hawks even had the project flagged to star two of his past favorites in Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. What a film that would have been. But when Karlson came aboard John Payne was offered the role (he would work with Karlson later on) that ultimately went to John Derek.

He and his faithful cameraman (Henry Morgan) are integral pieces of one of the most parasitic relationships on the Bowery that develop between newspapermen and the police. They’re rather like scavengers picking over the carrion or any other delectable scraps that might perchance be tossed their direction.

However, oftentimes the methods of an organization are employed from the top down. In fact, Steve McCleary (Derek) has become the star reporter under the tutelage of Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) the man who has taken over the helm of the New York Express. He took the once reputed but faltering behemoth and turned it into a sensationalized tabloid that subsequently has the highest readership it’s been able to attain in years. There’s no denying the stuff sells like hotcakes fresh off the griddle. What can you say? Sensation is tasty stuff and scandal is the favorite food of the masses.

The paper’s latest gimmick in pursuit of ever-rising levels of circulation is the implementation of a Lonely Hearts Ball trying to play up the angle of a few nobodies falling in love. It’s a real sob fest with all the trimmings for a great story. No one knew how right that assertion was.

What follows is a conflict of interest that’s ripe with dramatic irony. There’s a murder investigation and the paper is embroiled in the middle of it trying to drudge up the answers with the help of their readership. With such hysteria at its core Scandal Sheet shares, some of the same journalism beats of While the City Sleeps (1956).

However, in this picture, Donna Reed is the moral center because how could we ever suspect her of being anything other than that clean, respectful, Midwestern gal with heaps of integrity? She’s much the same here not wanting to besmirch her editorials with sleaze and believing in old washed up writers when no one else will give them the time of day. Even when her boyfriend is guilty of precisely that. In fact, that’s where a bit of their romantic tension is founded.

Steve’s good at his job and a real bloodhound on the beat and a handsome devil at that but a fairly ignorant stiff, the most aggravating reality about the picture being just that. The case is right under his nose and he doesn’t see it for the entirety of the film.

The easiest way to try and explain it away is much the way Walter Neff did in Double Indemnity (1944) though the roles are reversed, “The guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.” Except Broderick Crawford is no Edward G. Robinson and there’s not the same genial relationship that can be attributed to the earlier picture. It’s all business.

That’s why his romantic ties are so important. Because that’s the one area where he is steered in the right direction. Once again, Donna Reed is that crucial moral compass in a choppy sea lacking any amount of rectitude otherwise.

But then again, you get the feeling Donna Reed would never turn up in a Sam Fuller picture if this was his. Still, that should not completely neutralize what Karlson was able to do here — developing a film that’s pretty much as advertised. A gritty bowels drama that cases the insides of New York drudging up all sorts of drama in the name of yellow journalism. If that’s what you’re looking for you’re in for a treat.

3.5/5 Stars

They Were Expendable (1945)

They_Were_Expendable_posterThere’s nothing very intriguing about a film entitled They Were Expendable. In essence, we already know what the conclusion of the film is, however it is important to understand the context of when this John Ford World War II docudrama was coming out. In 1945 the Nazis and Japanese had finally been quelled, and the Allies could look back at the sacrifices that had been made.

One such example was in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor. Despite being undermanned and without much support, the brave men in the navy wreaked havoc against the enemy trying to hold onto their strongholds as long as possible before being forced to evacuate. It is far from a glamorous moment in the war because the war seemed to favor Japan and our forces were made to flee. However, in those moments of distress and tragedy, bravery seemed to flourish and our resolve only greatened. General Douglas MacArthur summed up the sentiments of every man when he promised, “I shall return.”

That being said, John Ford’s They Were Expendable is not always easy to follow; it can feel slow and deliberate, however, it exudes a gritty realism that is hard not to appreciate. It certainly is patriotic, but it does not often over sentimentalize war with high drama. We see it for what it often is. It means smoke, explosions, shipwrecks, death. It means breaking apart friends, crews, and men and women who care about each other.

Part of that realism is probably helped by Ford’s work filming a documentary of the Battle of Midway and lead Robert Montgomery (who plays Lt. Brickley) also fought on a P.T. boat during the war. Although he was not ever in the military, John Wayne always has a knack for reflecting American ideals of grit and determination. That’s why he was made for westerns as well as war films. This time around playing the fiery but loyal Lt. Rusty Ryan. Donna Reed on her part has a rather small role, and yet it is an integral part because she represents the brave nurses who support the military. She is the lifter of morale, the girl next door, all these ideals that fit this pretty young lady from Iowa. It’s hard to know if she’s just playing herself or not.

At times it’s a hard film to follow because it often seems to jump or skip events. Maybe it happens in an attempt to cover more story or maybe Ford did not want to hold his viewer’s hand, I’m not sure. I do know that I am far less of an informed viewer about this time period or this moment in World War II history. It often seems like most of the limelight is given to mainland Europe and not the Pacific.

As much as I was drawing connections and finding similarities, this film is far from McHale’s Navy. The story is far more somber, more realistic, and at times depressing to watch. It’s the kind of film that could only be made after we had won. It affirms our American resolve and honors those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. That and the film’s beautiful low lit images make it worth watching. The cinematography makes numerous scenes far more interesting by layering characters in darkness and accentuating the shadows in a hospital corridor for instance. Rather than making everything feel stylized, it only helps to augment the realism that makes They Were Expendable a worthy testament of WWII.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

5632c-wonderfullife4Every time I go through the emotional, romantic, heart-warming and at times uncomfortable roller coaster that is It’s a Wonderful Life, something new always seems to stick out to me.

It is always impressive for a film of this length that so much is packed into it. Within minutes we are fully enveloped in this story, and every sequence gives further insight into these characters. There is hardly ever a wasted moment because there is significance in each scene. Pointing us to the nature of George Bailey.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget the darkness that this film submerges itself in because it reaches such a jubilant crescendo. However, this is a story that covers the years including The Great Depression and World War II. Its protagonist sinks into a state of wretchedness complete with angry outbursts, negative feelings, and drunkenness. George Bailey loses all hope and his perspective is so completely distorted. For all intent and purposes, his life looks like it’s over, and it takes a frightening alternate reality to shake him out of his disillusionment. Put in this framework, it makes sense why it was a commercial flop when you juxtapose it with the big winner that year The Best Years of Our Lives. They both deal with post-war reality, but with very different lenses.

That’s the benefit of hindsight and a new context since we do not usually see It’s a Wonderful Life as a gloomy post-war tale, but a more positive parable that is universal in its impact. The first part of this story feels a bit like a Job story of hardship, and the second act is reminiscent to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s the simplest of observations. There is a lot more to be parsed through.

The romance of George and Mary is what many of us aspire to and it causes us to really empathize with their young love that weathers the good and bad breaks they receive. It’s the fairy tale love story we want, with the rock hard reality we are used to in our own lives. Some favorite moments in their life together would be the splash they make during the Charleston dance off, singing Buffalo Gals together, smooching on the telephone together, sharing a makeshift honeymoon together, and embracing after George gets his new perspective on life.

There are a fair number of close-ups utilized in this film, but they are usually used at crucial points in the narrative, and they tell us a great deal about both George and Mary.

The first key moment comes during a freeze frame of grown up George with hands outstretched giving us our first look at the man we will be following from there on out. The next big moment occurs when George learns that Potter will gain control and the Building and Loan will be disbanded if he leaves. He realizes in an instant that he must give up his plans. Then, he waits excitedly for Harry with Uncle Billy and it is a happy moment, but George learns his younger brother might have another job. The camera follows his worried face as he goes to follow his new sister-in-law. Never thinking of himself, he realizes that Harry has a chance for better things and that leaves George still working the Building and Loan.

After their tiff, the scene where George and Mary are talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright is a solidifying moment in their relationship. There are so many underlying emotions and unspoken feelings that they are having trouble figuring out and reconciling. And yet there is that violent epiphany when their eyes link. The tears and anger are quickly traded for passionate kisses reflecting the often complicated facts of romance.

One of the final close-ups that hits home occurs when the now non-existent George stumbles away from the front door of his mother, who now has no concept of him. There is sweat on his brow (maybe from the 90 degree summer heatwave) and desperate bewilderment in his eyes. This is the lowest point he could have imagined. His own mother does not know who he is. His wife has grown old and lonely in an existence of exile. Stewart’s face is so expressive and earnest suggesting that George knows just how important human companionship is. Humanity was made to be in fellowship with each other. Lack of money means very little in comparison to our friendships and family ties. This is essentially what George finally comprehends and what Clarence reminds him. George understandably lost sight of his wife and his children and his friends. They were a gift not to be taken lightly.

Aside from these close-ups, it is also evident that a great deal of  effort was put into creating this world from the characters and their back stories to the town itself which was constructed on the RKO lot. Everything from the building facades, to stray dogs, and snow make the drama more atmospheric. It’s one of those films that reveals the beauty of using real props inhabited by seemingly real people. That’s why I sometimes am disillusioned by CGI. Although it can allow us to create amazing spectacles, oftentimes it creates a world that feels altogether fake and alien. It’s not relatable and it lacks the humanity that makes up our existence each and every day. In other words, it has very little of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so compelling to me.

Perhaps there are more impressive or greater films, but there are few with greater heart and there is something to be said for that.

5/5 Stars

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This is not only a Christmas classic but a classic in any sense of the word. It is the best of Stewart and Capra adding up to one of the most heartwarming stories of all time.  This may exhibit Stewart is his everyman role once again, but it breaks away from Mr. Smith in many ways making it another uniquely great film. A film like this that makes you know and feel for characters so profoundly is certainly worth watching.

Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed with a fantastic supporting cast,  the film tells the life story of George Bailey. We watch with the angel Clarence as he sees George’s life unfold. George saves his brother Harry as a boy and as a result, loses hearing in his ear. He works in the Bedford Falls drugstore and keeps the proprietor Mr. Gower from making a deadly mistake. Later on, he plans to travel the world and go to college so he can escape his hometown and do bigger and better things. But once more he sacrifices. One fateful day, he doesn’t know it yet, but he meets the love of his life Mary, and the same day his kindly father has a stroke. Soon after,  Harry goes off to college and George is left holding down the fort at their father’s old building and loan. He builds up all those around him with selfless kindness, while simultaneously standing up to the grumpy millionaire Mr. Potter. Eventually, he marries Mary and has children. First, during the Depression George gives up his honeymoon to keep the building and loan open. Then, during WWII while his brother and others become heroes, George stays in Bedford Falls because of his poor hearing. In this post-war period, the story picks up in the present.

Although, by unfortunate circumstances George Bailey finds himself contemplating suicide after the absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000. That’s when Clarence comes into his life to show George just how important he really is. George sees a world where Harry is dead, Mr. Gower is a disgrace, Martini does not own the bar, his mother has no sons, Uncle Billy is insane, Violet is disgraced, Bert and Ernie do not know him, Mary is an old maid, and Mr. Potter has monopolized Bedford Falls.

Once he gets his life back George finds immediate joy and gains so much because of his friends and family. He runs through the streets of Bedford Falls yelling out “Merry Christmas,” because he is simply grateful to live again. Miraculously, the whole town rallies around him, and George reaps the reward for all he has sowed over the years. Clarence is finally awarded his wings and George Bailey is the richest man in town. There is nothing much to do after this film but simply be happy and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” It is a Wonderful film in many ways, with a wonderful cast, and a wonderful message. It has some of the greatest character development of any film ever because you do not simply become attached to one man but an entire community. That’s what makes the scene where Uncle Billy loses the money one of the most difficult for me to watch. Each and every time I’m so attached to these people. Even if I already know the resolution, I cannot bear for anything bad to happen to them. In fact, it is interesting to focus on just one of the supporting characters and see how they are affected by the life of George Bailey. It makes me ask myself if I were to die tomorrow would anyone care? We know in the case of George they certainly would.

I am further reminded of the phrase that is written on the wall of the building and loan, “You can only take with you, that which you give away.” This is what George Bailey did, and I believe it is something that each and every one of us should be mindful of. He is a great character not only because James Stewart played him genuinely and with such magnetism and heart, but because he was such a sacrificial figure. True, this is a sentimental film given the title and the director, but it is paramount to realize the progression this film follows. George must sink into the depths of his despair and disillusionment before he can truly realize that It’s a Wonderful Life. I would challenge you the next time you watch this film, to not simply acknowledge it as perennial Christmas fare, but look a bit deeper because there is so much more here. As always, Attaboy Clarence! You did it again.

5/5 Stars

From Here to Eternity (1953)

b0508-from_here_to_eternity_film_posterDirected by Fred Zinnemann, the film has an all star cast including Burt Lancaster, Monty Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra. Clift is a former boxer and bugler who has been transferred to a post in Hawaii. The commanding officer wants to have him fight for the company but Clift is adamant that he will not. From that point on life is made difficult for him on the base. However, he still finds time to go to a club with his friend Maggio (Sinatra) where he meets Lorean (Reed) and falls in love. At the same time the intelligent company sergeant Lancaster, finds himself falling for the commander’s wife (Kerr) who has an unhappy marriage. However, he feels he cannot become an officer effectively terminating their relationship. The dramatic events culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor which overshadows a smaller tragedy. This movie certainly had a cast full of famous people, but I have to say it was not my favorite film. All the same there definitely are some good moments.

4/5 Stars