The Eagle and The Hawk (1933): March The WWI Flying Ace

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There are two elements in the opening of The Eagle and The Hawk that might catch some viewers off guard. First, is the matter of a plane landing upside down. Second, being the fact the pilot is an uncharacteristically abrasive Cary Grant. He’s still playing support to our true lead Fredric March.

It’s alright to admit the shoe never quite fits and, thankfully, Grant was not forever relegated to such unseemingly roles again (well, there is Suspicion or Notorious). Regardless, in this WWI picture, a group of American aviators ship out from London to give their British allies a lift in France.

New forms of technology like aeroplanes still feel a bit rudimentary, yet to be time-tested, and therefore they carry with them a bit more danger. They must take recon photos flying close to the ground and often engage the enemy in aerial combat. The footage of the dogfights is lively if equally rudimentary.

It’s Grant’s Lt. Crocker who has aspirations to be a pilot, not an observer — the less glamorous posts going to those who take pictures and gun. Cary’s got a chip on his shoulder, and it’s turned him sour. Jack Oakie is the complete opposite — chipper, well-liked by all, and conveniently supplying comic relief.

However, it is the final star, the leading man, Fredric March who stands head and shoulders above the rest, at least on this occasion. He goes through a startling transformation over time. He soon learns the hard lesson. For every two kills of a jubilant Jerry Young (March), there’s the searing reality of a comrade dead.

We are instantly reminded war never allows a man to rest on his laurels before inundating them with the sheer callousness of such a conflict. It shows no favoritism. Officers or enlisted men alike. Doughboys or flyboys. It makes no difference. Everyone is susceptible.

In a matter of minutes, the weight of war is made obvious. It happens between a letter written to a dead man’s spouse and a blackboard with names constantly being erased and added.  Beyond being indiscriminate, war also waits for no man.

As time progresses, the dogfight sequences maintain quite the impressive pace for their day and age. The sequences use the resources at their disposable and varied shots to develop something fairly immersive beyond mere back-projection fillers.

Finally getting his first go, Grant shoots down an unarmed parachuter with great relish, his first day on the job, only to kill the mood after hours. They say he’s a “dirty deuce,” but perhaps he’s the only realist around. He treats it like war. They treat it like an exhibition in some contrived form of chivalry.

There are rules to war and gentleman’s agreements to be abided by on one side and then the “killed or be killed” mentality of Grant. And yet even as March remains one of the righteous ones, he starts medicating with alcohol to get over what he’s been privy to.

Soon he can’t get over the insanity or reconcile with the consequences set before them. They are bestowed medals by the French military with the rain pouring down — it’s a wet affair — and he’s still soused. 

A new batch of fresh-faced youngsters come to replace those who have already expired. He’s enlisted to speak to the new recruits, sharing a message for the sake of moral, though it’s evident he barely believes what he’s spewing. Because some of them will die before even getting to the front. What’s the purpose of it all? So the folks back home might cling to some misguided patriotic fervor?

The night terrors begin — Jerry’s mind now filled with burning, blood, and snipers at night. A change of scenery is suggested and so he’s given leave.  But in the households, the conversations are boorish and needlessly taken with the romanticism of war and glory.

Here are people drunk on the same wine. Men laugh about the enemy going down in flames. Curious young boys ask questions about what it’s like to meet the enemy with hopes to be up there one day. No one seems to understand, and how can they. They haven’t been there.

Watching from a distance, there is at last one pair of perceptive eyes. They belong, of course, to Carole Lombard. She slides her way into Jerry’s cab as he tries to leave the idle chatter behind. Instead, they find a quiet park, out of the way, to share some champagne and engage in genuine conversation.

She has only a momentary part — it really is a glorified cameo if we should call it that — and this is a movie that’s already so succinct. Still, it’s a memorable spot, and she offers a sympathetic countenance in a world all but lacking such consideration. It makes her all the more attractive.

Still, Jerry must go back to the lines and maintain the burden of being a shining example for others. After all, he is the fitting emblem of what a military hero should be. Fearless in the face of the enemy. All but indestructible with a stirling flying record.

However, we become jaded with the same persistent cynicism of Jerry pulling him from the airs above back into the parties and routines down below at the base. He can’t even manage to muster any kind of good-natured sentiment in such a jocund company.

All he sees are the chunks of flesh and bone on his chest in the form of medals. And all he can think about are the boys who have died either by his hands or at the hands of others. He’s gotten his medals, gained hero status and adulation from his peers, for killing kids. What’s worse, few seem to acknowledge him, going on their merry way. Surely he’s merely drunk. He’ll get over it in the morning. Except he doesn’t.

The film’s ending is a brutal shock to the system, but it settles into an honorable arc. If anyone was worried, Cary Grant is redeemed in the final moments preparing to soar off toward bigger and better successes.

What I’m most impressed with is how The Eagle and The Hawk does such a phenomenal job distilling some of the most pressing themes of war in its harshest and most bitter realities in such a meager allotment of time. It’s like All Quiet on the Western Front lite, and I mean this as the most sincere of compliments. It adeptly hones in on the essential elements of the prior film as another stark, unfaltering statement exploring human conflict on this seismic scale.

It comes not through heedless idealism but a sobering, unblinking examination of what war really is. Any pretense is stripped away in a matter of minutes while March gives one of the most piercing performances, arguably, of his entire career. If you haven’t already, go seek it out. My hope is that you’ll be glad you did.

4/5 Stars

Middle of the Night (1959): Chayefsky Does May-December Romance

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Middle of The Night proves instantly placeable thanks to its black-and-white, New York streets aesthetic. Although the name Paddy Chayefsky, emblazoned over the credits, gives us as much of an inclination of the story we are about to experience.

Because to this day, his name carries with it a hallowed note of reverence and a few distinctives. Not only did he garner the unprecedented acclaim of The Academy, his films were also always centered on characters in their individual spaces and mundane lives. His prose propelled the script into a place of primacy and his words were a form of gospel to center the story around.

While he did time in the nascent days of television where the lines between stage, screen, and theater were relatively thin, he ultimately propelled himself into the movies by maintaining his personal ethos and letting his words speak for themselves.

You might term them kitchen sink dramas, but whatever the phrase, they tackle issues of life as they happen in unfiltered ways. Analogous examples might be Marty, A Catered Affair, even a non-Chayesfy piece like Love With The Proper Stranger.

These roles were delivered on the stage by stalwarts E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint, then another illustrious pair: Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands. In the film, they fall to Frederic March and Kim Novak. Who you like most might fall to personal preference.

Far from having ice in her veins, Novak is nervous and skittish in all circumstances. It almost takes some getting used to and yet when you do, she feels more relatable than any other point in her career. Because she’s given up her self-assured cool and husky tones for a voice of a far more timorous nature.

March is always a splendid performer — he has a likability and an innate honesty to his characterizations. In principle, the same can be said of his overall performance here, but the element getting in the way at times is his lapses into an ethnic patois. Authentic backstory or not, it doesn’t quite suit him nor does he need it. But then my feelings started to evolve.

Because I became aware he seems to change how he speaks depending on who he’s talking to. After all, it’s not too farfetched as I have friends who lapse back into shorthand and slang to accommodate certain friends or family from a certain cultural subset. Whether or not this holds true in Middle of The Night, it hints at the complicated patchwork of interpersonal relationships human beings are constantly grappling with.

Recently I watched another Kim Novak romance, Strangers When We Meet, and its strengths fall to its extravagant Technicolor and a certain Hollywood opulence augmenting the middle-class romantic drama burning between Novak and Kirk Douglas. It is a West Coast counterpart to Middle of The Night because they are poles apart, both thematically and in the environments they take time depicting.

Here our main tension builds out of a May-December romance between an aging widower (March) and his beautiful young secretary (Novak). But while it gives the pretense of a superficial affair on the page, the brilliance of Chayefsky’s script is how he’s able to tease out the warm and tentative love budding between two people.

Lee Grant and Martin Balsam’s screentime might only accumulate to a few scenes each. However, even on the outskirts of the drama like they are, they still manage to leave a lasting impact on the story. It’s a testament to the scripting and the veteran caliber of the performers.

One scene, in particular, feels like a masterclass in stringing conversations together through overlapping ideas, cut-off sentences, and the types of asides that dot real-life conversation. Jack (Balsam) is talking about getting a sitter so they can take a vacation before tax season hits him. His wife Marilyn (Grant) — Jerry’s daughter — is preoccupied with her father’s romances. They are mismatched and going off on their own separate tangents.

Jerry doesn’t want to end up like his contemporary, the ostentatious shell-of a man (Albert Dekker), who talks a big talk about his romantic exploits while feeling generally regretful of the life he’s led. Jerry’s far from envious, especially as his live-in sister constantly tries to subtly influence his love life in unwanted ways.

Despite their mutual affinity, the disparate couple has their share of reservations. Because for the here and now, they are happy; they need each other and they love each other. But they can’t help but consider the obvious barriers around them.

If I’m remembering the underlying themes of Marty, the same elements hold true here too: the imprint of family and related peer pressure shape our decisions and ultimately our happiness. Since the days of Romeo & Juliet oftentimes family influence only serves to make matters all the more confusing. If romance happened in a vacuum, it might be a lot more manageable.

Because Betty and Jerry get away together and have a grand ol’ time at a rambunctious New Year’s party where everyone and their wife seems to be their new best friend. The age gap feels inconsequential when you’re full up on bubbly and at the top of the world.

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Still, they must return home to reality and with their mutual feelings not quite sorted out. They tell themselves the only thing that matters is them, and yet that’s a fallacy because there are so many strings attached. It’s a reminder of how serious relationships make those involved come to terms with everything. Because every person brings with them a plethora of familial relationships they must navigate.

Mother raises hell yelling down the stairwell at her daughter’s suitor with all her nosy neighbors crammed in the hallway to get a good look at Betty’s Spencer Tracy. And that’s not the end of it. Everyone else is agitated and high-strung, compounded by their own problems, and it’s these prolonged scenes providing a platform for the talents of Grant and Balsam.

My heart really breaks for Novak when her scuzzy ex-husband stops by from the Vegas circuit to try and win her back along with the “half hours” she used to give him. But she’s tired of it. Tired of being desired or more exactly objectified in this manner. She deserves better.

With Jerry momentarily out of the picture, it gives us the time and space to realize the gravity of her individual predicament and the struggles of her own life. She desperately needs Jerry. Constantly clinging to him, wringing her hands, biting her thumb as signs of her constant uncertainty and distress. Because there has never been any type of stability in her life.

Meanwhile, he’s continually obsessed with her but also about how others perceive her — jealous of any younger man who might have eyes for her. His fits of temper become exacerbated over time as he’s overcome by chippiness on the turn of a dime. It’s inconsequential until it totally blinds him, almost crippling their relationship. You could call these neuroses or you could simply acknowledge them as traits of two frightened little people.

Later, they share a fateful exchange in the snow. It looks like what they have has finally imploded. Can it be salvaged? We can’t be sure. He says, “It’s a lousy kind of love.” She replies tearfully, “It’s the only kind I know.” It’s pitiful and real and honest. Sometimes I feel like Chayefsky is on a soapbox — in a movie like The Americanization of Emily — here he just seems human.

This sums it up, doesn’t it? None of us are perfect at love. We have our own hangups, issues, and idiosyncracies getting in the way of loving our spouses and the significant people in our lives well. Whatever the outcome of The Middle of The Night, surely we can agree it intersects with all of us on some primeval level. This is the brilliance of Chayesky at his best. Because the humble origins allow him to shine through.

3.5.5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Kim Novak

In our ongoing series of guides for up-and-coming classic movie fans, we turn our attention to one of the most alluring and iconic actresses from the Classic Hollywood period.

Kim Novak, who is still alive and well today, started out in her early 20s as an answer to Marilyn Monroe, while soon developing her own image as a husky-voiced, sultry siren. She played opposite some of the biggest stars of her day. Unfortunately, her own talents are often dismissed in light of her looks, and she eventually left Hollywood to live a far more secluded life.

Picnic (1955)

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Kim Novak garnered attention for her self-assured work in the film noir Pushover and a playful bit in Pfft. However, one of her most iconic roles thereafter came with Picnic opposite William Holden. The Kansas heat whips up a passionate romance between a teenage prom queen and an out-of-town drifter. Their dance together to “Moonglow” is one of the movie’s magical moments.

The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

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There’s no doubt this is Frank Sinatra’s picture and a darn good one too as he plays a relapsing druggie struggling to get the monkey off his back. As all the street graft enable him and his disabled wife nags him, it’s the local waitress in Novak who gives him the tough love he genuinely deserves. They would costar again in Pal Joey with more tepid results.

Vertigo (1958)

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This is the big one. The one that will cement Kim Novak’s legacy for the ages thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s obsessive vision and Bernard Hermann’s mesmerizing score, turning her into a spectral beauty haunting the streets of San Francisco. Everything from her wardrobe to her posturing makes her dual role as Madeleine and Judy pitch-perfect. If you want something lighter, try Bell, Book, and Candle from the same year, also starring James Stewart

Middle of The Night (1959)

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Kim Novak’s performances are generally overshadowed if not completely neglected. She is, after all, remembered as a glamour girl. However, in a film like Middle of The Night with a heart-wrenching premise and a craftsman like Paddy Chayefsky, she stretches herself opposite Frederic March playing an unorthodox couple trying to weather societal peer pressure. It’s probably her most vulnerable, most devastating performance.

Worth Watching

Strangers When We Meet, Boys Night Out, Kiss Me Stupid, etc.

 

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932): Directed by Dorothy Arzner

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Bubbly is flowing and the gaiety abounds. Alcohol is not an evil, just a tonic to loosen morals, tongues, and dour countenances. When Joan Prentice encounters Jerry Corbett for the first time at a party, she’s immediately taken with him. He’s a few drinks in and has let the merriment overtake him. It comes off charming if a bit dopey.

Merrily We Go to Hell feels like a provocative title, and it’s true this alcohol-drenched drama is a predecessor to the likes of The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses.

Sylvia Sidney is about as winsomely sweet as she ever was and ever could be playing a socialite at a party. Frederic March has momentary glimpses of warmth and allure, though it’s hardly his finest hour on the screen. However, it is a testament to how phenomenal his career was at points, and even a picture like this seems to suggest how often he is an underappreciated star of Classic Holldywood.

There’s also a third far more surprising presence in the movie filling what might be considered a minor bit part. Cary Grant is all there, but it’s a bit like seeing John Wayne in Baby Face or James Stewart in Wife vs. Secretary. We’re there but not quite there when it comes to their career trajectory. He still needed to meet Mae West and then Leo McCarey to really get the wheels rolling, thus entering the stratosphere of quintessential screwball suavity.

As it settles in, Dorothy Arzner’s picture is all for hitting the journalistic beats contemporary to the day and age. It’s a perfect arena for modern, capitalistic America. An arena of vocation, class, and in this case, alcohol. One easily recalls Platinum Blonde though March, despite all his able acting prowess somehow cannot muster the same fitting charisma Robert Williams managed as a newshound. The former performer lent almost a screwball sensibility to Frank Capra’s picture.

It’s the same kind of affable charm that made Jack Lemmon so effective even as he dipped into similar depths of hell in Days of Wine and Roses. But back to Platinum Blonde. It’s hard not to see the earlier movie’s imprint being reworked within this material (even unconsciously) with less handsome results. Because some of the same dynamics are present. We have a lead infatuated by a platinum blonde (Adrienne Allen) and then opposite him is the endearing “other girl” we know full well will actually win out his heart. At least, in theory.

And if that isn’t enough, both newsmen dabble in playwriting, suggesting the menial pavement-pounding, all for the sake of making a buck, giving way to a higher calling of art and patronage. It handily reflects rungs in the social ladder to mirror contemporary society, as the film’s of the Depression-era all have a habit of doing. Obviously, they can’t help it. This is their world.

However, in Merrily We Go To Hell, playwriting holds a more substantial role aside from being a narrative device for the sake of parallelism. It brings Jerry Corbett the highs and lows of such a career while throwing him back together with his former flame, the glamorous thespian Claire Hempstead. The scenario feels rudimentary and mediocre going through these typical dramatic progressions.

Before it becomes complicated, the film is a basic love story of the lowly working stiff smitten with the heiress, although not for money’s sake. As it predictably dips into drunken stupors, strained relations, and infidelity, the film actually loses some ground. Corbett rounds up his chums, partakes of some merriment, and resigns himself to the platinum blonde rival. In an act of preservation more than rebellion, his wife deflects by digging up her own beau (hence Cary Grant) in an attempt to be equally “modern.”

What resonates most fundamentally are some of the more curious shot selections by Arzner. She certainly manipulates the camera and the images in such a way we are aware of them as an audience, whether through early forms of product placement or a curious rear-view of two men sauntering through a mansion. It feels sporadically alive with invention and a very particular vision, even as it spirals toward an unimaginative soap opera denouement. The accompanying  Pre-Code elements are there, but the picture doesn’t entirely douse itself and drown in the melodrama.

This proves to be a key because any such digression could have been its final death. Instead, the sense of restraint and understatement proves a far more powerful tool of storytelling. It subtly undermines stock Pre-Code sordidness for something nominally more intriguing. This nor the actors, totally save the movie, but they keep it from completely sinking. More people are finally starting to talk about Arzner, and Merry We Go to Hell feels like a worthy touchstone in her career.

3/5 Stars

Design For Living (1933): An Atypical Lubitsch Comedy

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“Immorality may be fun but it’s not fun enough to take the place of virtue and three square meals a day.” 

All director Ernst Lubitsch has at his disposal is a train compartment and three actors. Yet the opening scene of Design for Living positions itself as one of the most delightful moments in this entire picture. It’s a pure testament to bold visual filmmaking with nary a word spoken for at least 4 or 5 minutes. Few modern filmmakers would have the gumption to attempt it.

Lubitsch knows exactly what to do with such situations, and he was bred not only in sophistication but silent comedy. Because you see, the ultimate joke is when they actually start conversing with one another these three very familiar faces open their mouths and French comes out (Gary Cooper apparently was fluent).

Simultaneously, the director has also set up the relational dynamic of the film without a peep of dialogue. It really is a superb opener. However, this opening scene is almost too delectable for its own good. The film cannot possibly sustain such a  level of perfection. But more on that later.

When the three expatriates finally switch over to their native tongue, we have an uproarious discussion on art versus commercialism, Napoleon wearing a coat, and Lady Godiva riding a bicycle. Don’t ask for any explanation. In the parry and thrust of their conversation, we find out one is a painter (Cooper), the other is a playwright (Fredric March), and both are failures for the time being.

We are instantly reminded by a certain level of sauciness this is the Pre-Code era, though we are on the cusp of harsher censoring to come. For now, the picture is able to nonchalantly hang its hat on a central plot point involving our leading lady (Miriam Hopkins) and her two men embroiled in a menage a trois — a so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Her conundrum is very male and libertine in nature. She has different men to try and she likens them to hats she wants to put on.

Yes, there is innuendo and some contemporary audiences might have shuddered at the admission they mention the word “sex” out loud on multiple occasions. And yet none of this titillating attraction speaks to much of the underlying allure of this picture.

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Look at who we have assembled on top of the acting talent. It sounds too good to be true. If the name Noel Coward doesn’t carry emphatic weight in your life, you might as well cross it out and consider this a Ben Hecht picture. He was, of course, one of the great purveyors of Americana through aphorisms and pervasive wit.

He famously scrapped all of Coward’s play aside from a single line of dialogue. Leaving a mark on the material in a way that was far more suitable to not only Lubitsch but an American audience.

All the gloriously tantalizing pieces are in place but the question remains, Is comedic cohesion possible? Understandably, Hopkins and Edward Everett Horton take up their allotted positions with ease invariably suiting them. Though their own personas aren’t on par with Chevalier or Herbert Marshall, the two American lads do their darnedest. The fact Cooper always feels so awkward in comedy somehow even plays a bit to his favor.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t take. Again, we are putting it up rather unfairly against the likes of Trouble in Paradise or even The Smiling Lieutenant. Those are high benchmarks indeed. Put simply, the buoyancy is not there frequently enough.

Instead, we have a residual wistful melancholy that feels atypical for your usual Lubitsch drawing-room comedy. Cooper and March become a pair of “Gloomy Gusses” as Hopkins winds up marrying Horton to save them all grief. Even before that, the trio has their share of disagreements simply sorting out their inevitably complicated relationship.

If anything, it suggests in more rational terms that such an existence, as bohemian and open-minded as it may be, also becomes one of the most emotionally taxing. Not to mention relationally murky. In real life that is.

But when you expect something effervescent and gay, Design for Living is a bit of a letdown as a movie. After such a strong charge out of the starting gates, the storyline feels wanting in the middle, sluggishly rolling into the final act. One could wager whether or not plucking more out of Coward’s play might have been the most prudent choice. It’s possible it might have made the setup even droller. I can’t say.

Then again, maybe my own comic proclivities range toward screwball and the overtly visual far too much. It is true it often takes finer sensibilities to appreciate ironies and an astute sense of perception to read between the lines. An appreciation for wit and not solely physical comedy is key.

At least in my estimation, the movie is aided by a final party crashing in an attempt to get their girl. These bookends at the front and back half of the picture are vitalized by our stars being brought together. In such close quarters, there’s this inherent possibility for inspiration.

Lubitsch or not, if you have Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Edward Everett Horton together in a room, it’s infinitely better than watching grass grow. The same might be said of Design for Living because if it speaks to anything, the final notes impart a lightness of camaraderie and lithe romance rather than any morose confusions. As it should be. Though it winds up being too little too late.

3.5/5 Stars

The Desperate Hours (1955) Bogart Vs. March

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As the credits roll, the camera zooms its way down a residential street but doesn’t feel natural. It’s like a peering gaze casing the scene as music hammers away in the background. What makes the imagery more disconcerting is that this tranquil picture-perfect suburbia could be plucked right out of Leave it to Beaver. In fact, coincidentally, the house is the very same!

In this film, it belongs to your typical everyday family circa 1955. The man of the house, Fredric March, sits around the breakfast table, preparing for his job at local bank, bemoaning the fact his kids are growing up.

Little Junior is already showing signs. Not wanting to kiss his pops goodbye. His daughter is lovestruck and intent on marrying her beau, which he can’t stand to think about. His wife is perfect. Pretty, maternal, and a fabulous homemaker. Its all a bit insipid on the whole but that’s very purposeful. Currently, we might call his daily struggles “first world problems.”

It is a bit of the lifestyle that can be easily plucked out of any of the old family sitcoms from Fathers Knows Best to The Donna Reed Show. And yet what those portraits of the nuclear family never did have was the threat of three convicts at-large…

Their hardened leader is Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) joined by the boisterous slob Kobish (Robert Middleton), and Griffin’s kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin).  Come to think of it, there was an episode of The Andy Griffith Show with striking parallels, albeit with more comical resolutions. As is, William Wyler’s piece falls more in line with The Detective Story (1951) from a few years prior pushing the stage elements out a bit but still centering its action on the family domicile.

Arthur Kennedy at the Police Precinct is brought on the case but he really feels like a wasted opportunity and a dead-end at best. The real meat of the story is within that house between the two men vying for control.

Bogart, who got his break in Petrified Forest (1936) as a crazed heavy, is essentially book-ending his career with tough guy roles. Even if he’s over the hill for such roles, he still makes a good snarling approximation of his former self. One could argue that time has only made him more disgruntled and worn. His convict is a much more sorry figure with 20 years sagging under his dour eyes.

He plans to lay low in the residential neighborhood until the money they’re expecting gets sent their way. So we expect the plot to be a waiting game. Except the subsequent tension comes with criminals existing in such close proximity to this family, a theme running through other contemporary dramas like He Ran All The Way (1951) and Suddenly (1954).

To be ousted by the authorities means that everyone gets it. And yet the Hilliards are commanded to stick to their daily rhythms as closely as possible, even as the fugitives take over the home and turn it into a shambles. The conflict that goes through Mr. Hilliard’s head is between doing as the convicts say to protect his family and trying to get in contact with the police. He’s faced with the most nervewracking proposition of his life as the hours tick excruciatingly by.

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When March finally gets to his office, frazzled by the turn of events, it feels like a Wyler touch of perfectionism to have three portraits prominently sitting in his office. The way they’re arranged perfectly toward the camera feels blatantly artificial. No one would have them set up that way and yet they’re implicitly reminding him (and us) that the lives of the people he holds most dear are still in constant jeopardy. The worst part: he’s all but powerless to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, the police are shacked up in Al’s Dining Room kitchen as their command center itches for a decent lead. Cindy tries to head off her beau (a far too old Gig Young) so he doesn’t find out about the fugitives and get the family in more trouble. A garbage man gets it for seeing too much. Mr. Hilliard sweats it out waiting for a letter loaded with cash destined for his office.

One can easily surmise Wyler had great relish filming along the staircase because it all but visually summarizes the tension of the film. Stairs are all about space and the relationship of people to one another. It’s shorthand to explain an unbalance or shift in power. For Mr. Hilliard, this is about his family. That’s all that matters. For the policeman who’s just thinking about his reelection, it’s an entirely different scenario.

And what the picture does tease out is the idea that extreme duress often causes people to show their true colors, whether empowered by integrity or saddled by cowardice. In the end, a businessman living a so-called cushy life shows a fiercely defiant fortitude that ultimately holds his family together. It has less to do with the police or even the criminals that stakeout in his home.

In the end, it’s his own grit, determination, and will to protect his family that wins out. If the film is an exercise in suburban melodrama, it’s also a resounding testament to the human spirit as well. The scary part is that like The Hitchhiker before it, the story was partially based on real-life events. Why is that frightening, you ask? It means real people were faced with these dire consequences. We saw what they did? Implicitly we must also beg the question, what would we do when the desperate hours hit us?

3.5/5 Stars

Executive Suite (1954)

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Executive Suite is a story of the high rise corporate jungle where on a daily basis it’s a Darwinian experiment not only pitting company against company but, on a microscale, man against man. After all, in the most cynical sense, that’s what free market capitalism is.

Top to bottom, the film boasts rich reservoirs of talent from sure-handed director Robert Wise and screenwriting newcomer Ernest Lehman who would soon be a hot commodity in the industry thanks to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and North by Northwest (1959).

It also proves to be an All-Star cast if there ever was one,  stacked with at least 10 easily recognizable names rounding out a lineup which could go toe-to-toe with any other drama of the decade on talent alone. Such a bevy of stars hearkens back to the golden years of MGM in the 1930s before television was ever a thing and they had as many stars as there were stars in the sky.

Today Executive Suite admittedly doesn’t get much coverage as a drama because, in spite of its vast ensemble, it’s not necessarily grandiose or vibrant, even compared to later Wise successes like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). However, this in no way should downplay its striking qualities and there are some compelling ones.

Out of all the stylistic choices, one of the most noticeable ones and, subsequently, unusual decisions for the era is the absence of any form of traditional musical scoring. In this regard, we could say the scenes are not manipulated by any amount of sonorousness. What we see is making some claim at authenticity with street noise in lieu of diegetic sound and Chet Huntley introducing our narrative set in the upper echelons of a skyscraper.

Though a bit gimmicky by today’s standards, Wise does immediately catch our eyes with an extended POV shot taking on the perspective of an unseen big wig name Bulliard, the formidable head of Tredway Furniture Co. He’s coming back to town and has slated a meeting for that same evening, upon his return. Except something highly unsuspected happens. One might blame the taxing strain of his work but he winds up dropping dead in the street. Some scrounger conveniently picks up his discarded wallet, making any form of identification more difficult for the police.

The company is thrown into an uproar following his sudden and untimely death, especially because there is no true contingency plan as the deceased had no single, hand-picked second-in-command.

Nina Foch is the secretary managing a vast network of information, funneling down to all the executive suite. She is the runner between offices and boardrooms, relaying the information to all the necessary contacts as Bulliard’s right-hand assistant.

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They gather for their impromptu meeting. There’s Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), a career man who has been by the side of his friend Mr. Bulliard for many, many years now. Loren Shaw (Frederic March) is a relatively new addition to the company but as chief controller and a shrewd numbers man; he’s been able to up the annual earnings at Tredway as of late.

J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) is the charismatic head of sales who could talk anyone into buying just about anything. He’s that good. Of course, his dirty little secret is he’s been embroiled in an affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).

The ambitious young family man Don Walling (William Holden) holds a more hands-on position in the factory, overseeing design and development while the old warhorse, Mr. Grimm (Dean Jagger), is in charge of manufacturing. However, with their product going down in quality to cut expenses, he’s got an idea to retire. He holds no pride in his work anymore.

Between all these men and the opportunistic snake-in-the-grass, George Caswell (Louis Calhern), we have the gathering of the top brass and quality acting talent. It’s a bountiful proposition getting all these people in a room together. And when the news breaks it’s essentially an exhibition of “who died and made you king” as the factions scramble into action, assembling to vie for some form of supremacy.

Shaw is the first man spurred into action in the wake of Bulliard’s death because though Alderson holds private aspirations, he resigns himself to acquiescence. But that doesn’t mean they’re going down without a fight. Walling plays the number games late at night trying to figure where everyone stands. He confides in his wife (June Allyson) and plays catch with his son but his work-life balance is suffering. His wife worries the instability will bury him professionally.

It’s true the names are continually interchanging thanks to dirty politics and a plethora of finagling, leveraging, and leaning to line everything up for the impending nominations session to be undertaken on a closed ballot.

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In a man’s world, it’s fitting that Barbara Stanwyck would be the only woman with any sway on the meeting of the mind’s thanks to her stock holdings in her father’s company, which Bulliard helped appreciate. She doesn’t have much screentime but her very financial capital makes her crucial to the picture as an unpredictable swing vote. Her wild card and some late arrivals obscure the resolution to the last possible instant in thrilling fashion.

It’s true Henry Fonda was up for a part in the movie and that inkling gives me a rather obvious realization. Executive Suite does play like a bigger, loftier version of 12 Angry Men (1957). Especially in its most crucial minutes. Far be it from me to say people sitting around a boardroom table cannot be interesting because once more I was invested in what decision was arrived upon and I knew it took every one of those actors around that table to make it stick.

Someone has to rise to the occasion and that person is William Holden, positioned as the initially hesitant one, dismissed as still inexperienced, and yet he has a vision the others lack. He’s not a tired old man. He’s not driven solely by profits or bitter over past affronts.

He’s looking beyond to new territory and a future where the company can prosper not simply because of penny-pinching but an actual pride in the quality of the product they can offer their customers. If you wanted to make a sweeping statement, you could say he, even momentarily, redeems the American Dream, a symbol of the American everyman with his white picket fence, beautiful wife, and high ideals. That is until the next board meeting happens. But I would like to think he is capable as a leader for change. It’s true we need people like him in this world of ours.

4/5 Stars

Hombre (1967)

hombre1“You don’t get tired, you don’t get hungry, you don’t get thirsty. Are you real?” – Jessie

“More or less” – John Russell 

How to function within Western culture. That’s what John Russell must figure out as a man who was raised by Apache and then is forced to enter the “white man’s world” to collect his deceased father’s possessions (a watch and a boarding house). He starts out complete with long locks and a bandanna but soon switches over to more traditional western wear in a way blending into society — while simultaneously beginning to look more like the Paul Newman we know.

But he’s far from the affable ne’er do well. In fact, he hardly even utters a word. He’s not agreeable and about as terse as they come. He’s not looking for any favors and he’s not looking to hand out any charity. He’s also not going to take the white man’s flack. But his decision to sell his boarding house for horses is not too popular with the home’s residents, including the fiery Jessie (Diane Cilento).

hombre2Ultimately, Russell boards the local stage with a few other individuals. The destination doesn’t seem to matter much, but the people do. Leading the coach is affable Mexican Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) and along with the two aforementioned, the other two misplaced tenants, young Billy Joe and his wife join the contingent. The coach is rounded out by Indian Agent Alexander Favor (Frederic March), his well to do wife, and finally, the vulgar tough-guy Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone).

When Dr. Favor learns of Russell’s background he requests that the Indian sit up top and such a reaction embitters Russell. But there’s not much time to worry about the prejudice because Cicero’s cronies hold up the stage in an effort to swipe some ill-gotten gain from the esteemed doctor. The survivors are left to die and Russell heads off on his own with a few stragglers trying to catch up with him. He has no sympathy to offer, but they follow him because he is the most knowledgeable among them.

Of course, the film must reach a crescendo and it occurs with Russell dealing with Dr. Favor and then Boone. Both men are crooked in their own ways. Grimes is sadistic in nature, but Favor is also a despicable and sorry excuse for a human being. And yet Russell himself has his own streak of heartlessness. What it means is that each man must face justice and in some way, shape, or form pay for their deeds. Just as the men come in different incarnations, they are complemented by varying degrees of women from all across the gamut.

Director Martin Ritt’s Hombre really feels like a riff off of Stagecoach and feels somewhat reminiscent of Boetticher’s western The Tall T (also featuring a no good Richard Boone). But it’s no doubt a western for the 1960s, coloring the West with more liberal and revisionist tones. However, the film deals not only with prejudice but morality. For although John Russell has a gripe with the world and its hypocrisy since his people are getting pushed out by men who call themselves “Christian,” he’s not without fault. Jessie so rightly points out, that if the whole world didn’t lift a finger then the whole world would go to hell in a hand-basket. And in many ways this world does.

3.5/5 Stars

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): The Forgotten Counterpart to George Bailey’s Story

The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives_film_Inherent in a film with this title, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, is the assumption that it is a generally joyous tale full of family, life, liberty, and the general pursuit of happiness. With both films you would be partially correct with such an unsolicited presumption, except for all those things to be true, there must be a counterpoint to that.

Upon watching both these films on subsequent days, that became markedly evident. George Bailey (James Stewart), of course, must go through a perturbing alternate reality where he never existed, and the consequences are catastrophic to all those he knows and loves in his community. But such a paradigm shift or new perspective, does truly revitalize his entire existence. It’s as if he sees the whole world through an unfaltering lens of hopefulness thereafter.

Although it lacks the dark fantasy that engulfs the latter half of It’s a Wonderful Life, Best Years has its own heavy dose of foreboding, that while more realistic, is no less disconcerting. All the boys have returned from the theaters of Europe and the Pacific, including our three protagonists Fred (Dana Andrews), Homer (Harold Russell), and Al (Fredric March). Upon getting back to their old abode of Boone City, sons talk about nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and men at drug store counters warn of the imminent threat of “The Reds.” Some soldiers like Fred have trouble landing work. Others struggle with getting the necessary loans from banks like the one Al works at,  or they come back to far less glamorous lifestyles. Homer copes with being a double amputee and simultaneously closes himself off to all those who love him, including his longtime sweetheart Velma (Cathy O’Donnell). He must learn not so much how to love, but the equally difficult life skill of allowing others to love him.

Derry also struggles in a loveless marriage with his superficial wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), while also battling with PTSD symptoms like recurrent nightmares. Even the subtle reality that the only African-Americans in the film work behind soda fountain counters or in nightclub jazz bands has greater implications. Theirs is a relegated status, even in a country of liberty like America. Unlike the former film, we do not see any ghoulish human cemeteries, but we do see plane graveyards like ghost towns where metal is slowly rusting just waiting to get demolished and re-purposed. At this point, it is only a sobering reminder of all those who fought and died in the war years.

Many of these topics are only mentioned for a brief moment or we can only infer them from visual cues, but still, they lurk there under the surface or better yet, right in plain view. These real-life unsettling concerns are worse than It’s a Wonderful Life because they fall so close to home even today.

Wounded veterans are still coming home to a country that doesn’t know what to do with them, or a country that seems ungrateful for their service. Married folks still struggle through marriage and divorce. Single people still struggle with figuring out if they should get married and so on.

I think part of the reason I admire The Best Years of Our Lives so much, despite its nearly 3 hour running time, is its ability to captivate my attention rather like a day in the life of someone I would meet on the street. Although Virginia Mayo and Mryna Loy seem the most Hollywood, most everyone feels rather ordinary. Certainly, Dana Andrews is handsome and Teresa Wright, as well as Cathy O’Donnell, are wonderful as multidimensional girls-next-door, but I feel like I could potentially know people like them. And of course, Harold Russell was unusual since he wasn’t a trained actor. That casting choice pays off beautifully in moments such as the final wedding scenes where in a dyslexic moment he switches up his vows. But it works wonderfully as an authentic addition.

Although Gregg Toland worked on revolutionary fare like Citizen Kane, and William Wyler dabbled in all sorts of genres from westerns to period dramas, they have all the necessary sensibilities for a perfect presentation given the subject matter. The visuals are crisp and beautiful, but never flashy or overly conspicuous. The use of deep focus concerns itself with the overall composition of the frame -never attempting to focus our attention on any singular action.  It all becomes equally important. Meanwhile, Wyler directs with a sure hand that makes the actions flow organically and at the same time his ensemble is given the space and the time to grow and evolve before our very eyes.

It’s a timeless film for what it brings to the forefront and also because of what it evokes out of the audience members themselves. There is an underlying somberness to it at times, but most importantly it rings loudly with the high unequivocal notes of hope. In the post-war years, it was a pertinent film, and it still has something to offer even now. More people need to know about The Best Years of our Lives.

5/5 Stars

I Married a Witch (1942)

I_Married_a_Witch_posterDirected by French emigre Rene Clair, I Married a Witch is a surprisingly cheeky comedy for the 1940s. The plot opens up with the Salem Witch Trials where a male and female witch are both to be burnt at the stake. However, before dying they cast a curse on the lineage of one Jonathan Wooley (played in Puritan garb by Fredric March), and so going forth all his ancestors are doomed to accursed marriages.

Now in the present (1942), the current ancestor Wallace Wooley (March) prepares for a run at the governorship as he also prepares to marry his disagreeable fiancee (Susan Hayward) to bolster his appeal on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, the spirits of Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and Daniel (Cecil Hathaway)  are finally released from their prison and they head out ready to cause all sorts of mischief. At first, they travel as smoke floating through the air and residing inside bottles. However, Jennifer has the brilliant idea of taking on human form so she can torment Wooley even more.

They follow to burn down the Pilgrim Hotel and then Jennifer gets Wooley to unwittingly rescue her from the burning remains, a hero. Little does he know what’s he’s done. She pulls all sorts of pranks on him that leave a bad impression on his housekeeper and are bound to get him in the doghouse with his fiancee. Veronica Lake is very alluring in a sing-song sort of way as her character tries to playfully seduce Wooley. She even crafts a love potion, but plans go awry when she actually ingests it. Now she’s hopelessly in love and she must try and crash Wallace’s wedding to win him back.

Joined by her father in physical form, they put the proceedings to a halt with a gust of wind and then Daniel tries to impede Jennifer by turning her into a frog, but he ends up drunk instead. Of course, Wallace is caught in yet another awkward spot with the witch. The wedding is off (along with the dreadful song “I Love You Truly”) and the campaign is done for…or is it?

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In the end, it looks like Wallace might lose his new found love, but she comes back to him, the moral of the story being, “love is stronger than witchcraft. It conjures up a Frank Sinatra song right about now.

This film has a whimsically absurd scenario bolstered by simple special effects that allow buildings to burst into flame, Jennifer to slide up the banister, and Daniel makes the car levitate. This is an obvious precursor to a pair of 1960s sitcoms. Veronica Lake’s performance is very reminiscent of Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie and the plot feels like a plot line out of Bewitched since our heroine is also a witch. Too bad Robert Montgomery was not in this film. His daughter was a witch after all.

3.5/5