The Black Swan (1942)

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If you make your way to this swashbuckler you’ll find a movie set in The Spanish Main as England has just brokered a peace treaty with their imperialistic competitors. As you probably already surmised, you might as well leave your textbooks on maritime history at home because there’s no need to reference them here. Actually, I stand corrected. Captain Henry Morgan was a real person. Everything else is an excuse for pillaging gold and adventure on the high seas.

As someone educated on Tintin serials (ie. The Secret of the Unicorn) and “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything,” enjoying such a picture from perennial Hollywood journeyman Henry King is hardly a chore taken for what it is.

In the opening moments, we have coastal marauders who overrun a city to loot it and run off with pretty girls. They’ve even stretched a conceited official on the wrack for good measure. Except a counterattack by the local militia ensues and soon we learn from the reformed pirate, Henry Morgan himself (Laird Cregar), things have changed.

He has been made Magistrate of Jamaica in return for his loyalty and he calls his faithful scallywags to join him in a bit of respectability on the right side of the law. His longtime right-hand man, Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), agrees to it, though some of the others led by treacherous Billy Leech (George Sanders) look to try their luck on the seas like always.

The pictures finest asset is a cast as thick as thieves. A particularly cheeky Tyrone Power is at the top his of game, looking like he’s having a swell time of it, being a bit of a dashing scoundrel right up there with Errol Flynn. Cregar is memorable yet again as the formidable blaggard with many a plume. He and “Jamie Boy” share a particularly humorous reunion when Power dumps a purportedly unconscious Maureen O’Hara like a sack of potatoes to give his old buddy, Captain Morgan, a warm welcome.

Meanwhile, George Sanders is almost unrecognizable as a mangy red beard. It’s one of those makeover jobs where you have to do a double take to try and differentiate that familiar voice hiding behind a very unfamiliar visage.

Following up his villainous turn opposite Power in Son of Fury (1942), Sanders is back and even better. Though not seemingly the athletic type or a swordsman for that matter, he lends the right amount of licentiousness and folly to his turn as Captain Leech.

Thomas Mitchell, a man who could play a character part in his sleep, colors in his role as the quintessential boisterous, bandanna-wearing sea hand who’s right by Jamie’s side whenever he’s needed. There’s even Anthony Quinn with an eye patch, though woefully underused and Maureen O’Hara, the most desirable “wench” there ever was on the Caribbean, as our only leading lady.

It must be acknowledged however the script all but wastes her talents as she hardly fits the archetype of your normative “damsel in distress” role, though her beauty in Technicolor is admittedly unsurpassed. While hampered by an unimaginative part, she still manages a few fiery exchanges with Power after his character kidnaps her as his bride-to-be and they subsequently build some kind of rapport out of the sparks in a mere scene or two.

The picture follows Jamie Boy as he scours the ocean for his old shipmate, Billy Leech, who is up to his old plundering ways, terrorizing the seas and ruining the tranquility of the two world powers. Though reformed, Morgan is under fire from a council that finds his position suspect as he was once in cahoots with the wanton criminal. The authorities at hand call for impeachment even as one among their ranks sows discord.

What else is expected except a final shootout on the seas complete with a barrage of cannons? Jamie is held prisoner by the man he was sworn to apprehend while other forces look to hang him for perceived insubordination. But Tyrone Power is more than up to the task of swinging through the yardarms to victory and getting the girl for good measure.

To this end, The Black Swan is wartime swashbuckling escapism, both fanciful and fairly lean in running time and resources. These, of course, were in part an effort toward wartime conservation but the reduced length does not keep it from being fulfilling. Perhaps it’s for the best they don’t make pictures like this anymore but, for its day, it’s an ebullient rollick worthy of the pirates within its frames. Maybe not its lady…

3.5/5 Stars

Hangover Square (1945)

Hangover_Square.jpgWithout question, Hangover Square is in many respects analogous to The Lodger with the reteaming of director John Brahm with Laird Cregar and George Sanders. However, the biggest difference is that we have Cregar putting on on a new persona and losing over 100 pounds!

Among other things, it forced director John Brahm to shoot the production in sequence as to not completely decimate the continuity, based on the movies main protagonist. In fact, the actor initially turned down the part because of his aspirations to remake his image. Though he reconsidered when he saw the part could be played to his advantage and he turned Hangover Square into a superior vehicle.

If we want to break the movie down to its most incremental themes, it’s essentially about a man in Edwardian London torn apart by conflicting musical projects representing the two women in his life, who are effectively pulling him in opposite directions. He’s a mad genius whose personality disorder is completely torn asunder by the chafing in his life. It will only prove to be his undoing.

Like any good noir, there’s the femme fatale: Linda Darnell, hair puffed up in a bouffant, legs kicking gayly as she puts on her best English accent. She handily makes a coy nuisance of herself, cajoling him with her flittering eyelashes and then evolving into an icy heartbreaker on the turn of a dime when he no longer does her bidding.

Cregar gets walked all over as Veda sucks his talent dry for her own aspirations and the pursuit of a more dashing suitor who she vows to marry — even after making fragile promises to be his. She knows how to play him, if nothing else.

Barbara (Faye Marlowe) is the “Guardian Angel” who has everything including his best interest in mind. Her father (Alan Napier) has long been advising on Georges latest masterpiece — a Concierto that he has been laboring over for some time. She has been his astute pupil on the piano while also seeing right through not only Veda’s mediocrity as a performer but also her manipulative guise. There’s nothing sincere about her.

What we continuously see are reverberations of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale. Here is a man of such musical receptivity able to craft pieces with such depth of feeling and yet there is another side of him — a side that strangles cats in his spare time and other things… Quite frankly his unaccounted behavior scares him and he goes to a Dr. Middleton (George Sanders) at Scotland Yard seeking some kind of aid.

It’s true that Hangover Square is a movie plagued by claustrophobic hysteria supplied not only by Cregar’s performance but the mise en scene as well. What we have is the artifice of gothic exterior-interiors with layers of ready-made atmospherics and foreboding scoring interjected with an instantaneous cacophony of chaos composed by the virtuoso artist Bernard Hermann.

One enduring moment is that of the burning effigy lit to high heaven on Guy Fawkes Day. It’s the quintessential image to capture the essence of our main character and the conflicted conflagration burning inside of him. Nero purportedly played his violin while Rome burned. George pounds away at the piano slavishly. But his story is a tragic tale of destructive genius that overtakes him. The final lingering images can’t help but leave an impression.

If Bogart sculpted psychopathic gangsters into hardbitten anti-heroes, later on, there’s a similar sense that Laird Cregar might have fashioned his menacing villains into conflicted but still heroic alternatives too. It’s mere conjecture and alas we will never know what could have been.

Two months before the picture was even released the actor would die from a heart attack, the ultimate tragedy brought on by his rapid weight loss. A fairly heavy man in most of his earlier roles, Cregar was committed to changing his physique in an effort to be leading man material. But, again, it was not in the stars.

While not a bona fide classic per se, Hangover Square remains as a chilly noir that’s not only a testament to Linda Darnell’s aptitude as a spellbinding black widow but to Cregar’s ability to make madness all but palpable. It’s a shame we lost him so suddenly because there’s no telling what heights his career might have reached. How true it is we very rarely appreciate someone’s talents until they are no longer available.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Lodger (1944)

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“Love is very close to hate. Did you know that?” – Laird Cregar as Mr. Slade

Some perceptive viewers might well know that The Lodger is based off a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and it garnered a fairly high profile silent adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock followed by a sound version in 1932. Both pictures starred heartthrob Ivor Novello.

What the Hitchcock version boasts is his trademark eye for the visually cinematic even at this early juncture of his career. Still, the young director was a bit unsatisfied with a resolution that lacked the true punch of the original narrative. Honestly, he probably delivered the best thriller he could given the circumstances.

But with John Brahm’s rendition, this is as close to an uncompromised narrative as it can be while still meeting the requirements of the Hays Codes. What we have on our hands is a Jack The Ripper murderer who slits the throats of ladies all across England. And it’s not merely a bout of mistaken identity with Laird Cregar’s foreboding presence hanging over the picture moment by moment.

Merle Oberon, renowned for her immense beauty, did suffer some lacerations and scarring from a car accident in 1937. Her career continued unimpeded and in Lucien Ballard, she found a cinematographer she literally fell in love with. The reason being, he developed a lighting style — still called “The Obie” to this day — that completely hid her minor blemishes. As was the case with Minnelli and Garland, perhaps she fell in love more with the way he made her look than with the actual person. They would get divorced a few years later in 1949.

As far as her performance there’s little to criticize. She’s bright and beautiful as the dancehall singer, Kitty Langley, who lives with her aunt and uncle in the Whitechapel district. Admittedly she does seem a little well-to-do for her specific career path but no matter she’s quite the success.

Meanwhile, the ominous and rather taciturn gentleman Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes up residence in the Bontings’ home forewarning them about his nocturnal habits due to his research as well as his desire to be left alone as much as possible. Meanwhile, the rash of murders across the city continues and Scotland Yard has yet to apprehend the criminal.

An Inspector Warwick (Georges Sanders) comes to call on Ms. Langley as she was the last person to see Jack The Ripper’s latest victim alive — one washed up actress named Annie Rawley. In this way, our stars have been brought together but far more intriguing is the fact that such a foreboding character is staying right in their stead.

And it’s more than just a hunch that Mr. Slade might be the culprit. On top of his often erratic and suspect behavior, he’s obsessed with his genius-of-a-brother now deceased. He claims that beauty led to his sibling’s destruction and there’s little denying that he has some deep-rooted abhorrence for stage actresses.

So the inevitable must come. Everyone turns out for Kitty’s latest performance even the normally reclusive Slade and as he watches the show with its lavish costumes, provocative Cancan lines, and song and dance, we watch something begin to erupt.

What follows is the rest of a thrilling pandemonium-filled stage show that becomes a frenzy when it’s let out that the wanted lady killer is purportedly right in the very building. Cregar crazed and paranoid scrambles past sets and up into the rafters for a chance at escape. Ultimately he brandishes his knife for a desperate face off with the police force. In the end, he takes the path of least residence that nevertheless leaves an indelible impression.

Sanders and Oberon are fine talents, genial and all, but next to their supporting star they feel unremarkable. Of course, that comparison is already so unfairly weighted. Because Cregar is just that chilling. There’s little doubt that he captivates the screen and subsequently steals the picture in the final minutes. He’s the only reason you need to watch this one. If it means anything, the movie was a stirring success and it garnered a follow up in Hangover Square (1945) which might be even better. Cregars a showstopper in that one as well if you needed any indication.

3.5/5 Stars

Lured (1947)

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Herein is a slightly off-kilter serial killer, mystery-thriller and early American film in the career of German emigre Douglas Sirk. Of course, the action is actually set in England. It’s a film that builds a paranoid framework like The Lodger (1944), I Wake Up Screaming (1941) or other like-minded films. However, it goes through the normal paces only to lurch forward in the most curious directions.

The parties involved include a Scotland Yard guided by that industrious Brit for a day Charles Coburn. Other people of interest include a street-smart nightclub dancer (Lucille Ball) who saw one of her co-workers go missing after a rendezvous with a mystery man. In fact, a rash of disappearances of young attractive women has overtaken the city.

Thus, upon finding Ms. Carpenter to be a plucky and intelligent young woman the inspector calls upon her services to force their elusive perpetrator out in the open acting as the tantalizing bait. She begins to respond to advertisements in the paper — his calling card — to lure victims into his clutches.

The only problem is figuring out who the man might be because numerous candidates roam the streets and many people circa 1947 placed postings in the paper. It’s common practice. Among people she gets caught up with are a delusional fashion designer who became unstable after years of criticism. The one and only Charles van Druten is played by none other than Boris Karloff in one of the film’s many digressions.

Likewise, Ms. Carpenter answers a call for a position as a maid, though the prospective employer’s intentions prove to be far more insidious involving some dealings in South America and too-good-to-be-true promises of advancement. Once more Scotland Yard puts an end to the criminal activities but is no closer to their murderer.

One of the more prominent people of interest is Robert Fleming (George Sanders) a man of vast influence and a stage producer who finds classical music tepid and most of the upper echelons of the society’s elite even worse. He goes about it all with the playful disdain that can only be attributed to George Sanders at his best.

In fact, his manner is off-putting to Sandra as well but their prickly beginnings cannot completely derail romantic feelings. In those respects, both Ball and Sanders prove to be adequate romantic leads propelled by their wry comedic proclivities. That’s far more rewarding than any romance. The only problem is that he might not be who he claims to be and at any rate, a great deal of circumstantial evidence is piled up against him. A final push for justice must be made.

Lured isn’t an instant classic as the tension while there is never altogether sweltering. But simultaneously the screen is crammed with quality performers and just enough idiosyncratic moments and bits of humor to keep the film from being absolutely conventional. George Zucco is by far the most amusing of the many supporting characters as the crossword puzzle-loving officer H.R. Bartlett who acts as Sandra’s guardian angel while simultaneously coming upon many of his solutions through simple eavesdropping.

This is also a telling film that should make us uncomfortable and it’s not so much that things feel overwhelmingly misogynistic and objectifying of women, it’s the even more sobering fact that things have not changed as much as we would like to believe.

What is the root of most serial killing? Surely we can see familial issues or mental instabilities but oftentimes it’s tied in with a distorted sense of love wrapped up in perverse fantasies hidden from view.

Our killer is obsessed with the poetry of Baudelaire and uses it to realize the fantasies that he never seems able to act out on. The man’s interest is in destroying beauty instead of making love to paraphrase Coburn’s character. When he finally is revealed I’m not sure it’s a surprise but then need we be surprised? Many “normal” men are capable of great evil. They’re simply good at covering it up.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

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If Alfred Hitchcock had any contribution to the war effort then Foreign Correspondent would no doubt be it. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was purported to have admired its qualities as a work of propaganda and that’s high praise coming from someone who was quite familiar with influencing people. If nothing else it proves that moving pictures can be deeply impactful on mass audiences and that still holds true much the same today.

It’s also subsequently reductive to call our leading man Joel McCrea the poor man’s Gary Cooper which may have come into being because the other star turned down the role. Something that he subsequently regretted. However, there’s something inside of me that thinks that McCrea almost works better because he has a sardonic edge. Cooper was quiet and strong, a true blue American but McCrea is ready to hit the pavements with a voice that’s incisive.

In this picture that’s his trade. He’s used to crime beats and as such he’s given the task as a scoop getter, a foreign correspondent, in the European theater for the folks at home. What he comes upon is more than he could ever imagine with international treaties, assassinations, kidnapping, drugging, and far-ranging conspiracy. All because of a peace conference looking to alleviate the belligerent rumblings in Europe. In this case, Johnny Jones (McCrea) aka Huntley Haverstock acquaints himself with an international peacekeeper named Van Meer only to have the man disappear, reappear, and wind up in places that one would never expect. It’s all very peculiar.

One of his other acquaintances is the lovely and bright young woman played by Laraine Day (known to baseball fans as the future Mrs. Leo Durocher), who has joined her father (Herbert Marshall) at a summit of the International Peace Party.

Within this basic storyline laced with some snappy lines provided by a whole slew of script contributors (including regulars Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison), Hitchcock strings together some lovely visuals including crowds of top hats, crowds of umbrellas, and a lively chase as Haverstock sprints through traffic to try and apprehend a gunman. Unsuccessfully I might add.

The world is highlighted by some equally inventive locales that are simultaneously indigenous to their environment in typical Hitchcock fashion like the windmills in Holland. With its churning mechanisms and creaky stairwells fit with cavernous hallways, you can tell Hitchcock finds great delight in using the stage to build the stakes of his story.

Because it’s all a massive cover-up and that conveniently sets the stage for our romantic comedy which is being overlaid by this international thriller of stellar intrigue. As our intrepid correspondent acknowledges, he’s “thrown a monkey wrench into some international dirty business whatever it is.” That’s about all we need to know and it does suffice.

My only misgiving is how easily Laraine Day’s character gives way and loses her disapproving edge to fall madly in love with Joel McCrea. Still, the film doesn’t end there. There’s a lot more that must happen. A lot more crises to be averted.

Though it’s hard to know the precise timeline now, there’s an innate sense that Foreign Correspondent is really on the cutting edge of the current events and it benefits from that very quality that still lends a certain amount of credence to this nevertheless wildly absurd plot.

Because though it’s undeniably a work of fiction as noted by the opening disclaimer, there’s still the touches of truth that were all too obvious to the general public. Namely, Hitler and a World War threatening to explode — bombs already raining down on Great Britain as undeniable proof.

The most remembered setpiece comes last and it’s a beautiful touch of ingenuity, Hitchcock simulating the crash landing of an airplane like few others of his era would ever dare to attempt and it comes off with torrents of energy that leave a stirring impression.

But that is almost matched by the passionate rallying cry that Joel McCrea sends up over the radio waves to his fellow Americans, urging them to keep their lights burning because they’re the only source of hope in a world getting increasingly darker. This final monologue was essentially an afterthought penned by Ben Hecht but it’s heft no doubt impressed Goebbels. This one’s an international thriller with a patriotic tinge. Fitting, as Hitchcock in many ways would be as much an American as he was an Englishman.

Foreign Correspondent is sutured together along those same lines. Because just as Joel McCrea and George Sanders’ characters work together to get to the bottom of things, the imminent war necessitated a partnership between the American and British nations. It was a long time coming but the lights kept burning and remained indefatigable to the very end.

4/5 Stars

Review: Rebecca (1940)

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” ~ Joanne Fontaine in Rebecca 

In normal circumstances, voice-over introductions rarely resonate but for some reason, the ethereal tones of Joan Fontaine opening Rebecca leave a lasting impact and that’s after well nigh 80 years.

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood and it truly is a stunning debut but if you take a step back and see who was working behind the scenes, it soon because fairly plain that this was as much of a David O. Selznick film as it was a Hitchcock one, if not more so. Because Selznick had Hitch under contract and he was following up the grandeur of Gone with the Wind (1939) with another costume drama positioned to be a smash hit.

Though Rebecca was slightly less ornate and preoccupied with its more gothic sensibilities, Daphne du Maurier’s novel was nevertheless ripe for a Selznick treatment with a sturdily constructed story and quality production values all across. And of course, you have the acting talent which while not necessarily head and shoulders above all of Hitch’s previous works was nevertheless top of the line.

First, of course, is Laurence Olivier providing a great deal of import to the part of one of our protagonists, George Fortescue Maximilian De Winter, the tortured man of breeding whose life is stricken with past tragedies. But equally crucial is Joan Fontaine’s role as the unnamed woman who subsequently becomes the second Mrs. De Winter after a whirlwind courtship in Monte Carlo. She began as the meek lady in waiting for a boorish socialite Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper only to fall in love with the older man.

Fontaine inhabits the role with a breathless wide-eyed timidity that’s immediately attractive and makes her the object of our sympathies. She always gives off the appearance of a frazzled little deer in the headlights like she doesn’t quite know what to say or what to do in the presence of others whom she deems more important than herself.

It’s that very quality that drew me to Fontaine from the outset the first time I saw Rebecca and no doubt a similar quality that draws Maxim de Winter to her character. There’s an undeniable innocence there full of an angelic beauty that exerts itself each time she interacts with others, eyes wide with mouth agape. That in itself is an immaculate illusion given Fontaine’s own life full of estrangement. Here she is faultless and demure.

And that comes into focus even more clearly because Maxim can often be an unfeeling man, swarmed with past demons though he might be. Put them together and he’s certainly the dominant figure. The same goes for their arrival at his stately home Manderley. The current Mrs. De Winters is totally overwhelmed by this grand estate and the staff that frequent its halls.

The shining example is the apparition of a housekeeper Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and it’s a career-defining role for a character actress who always could be imperious and a little unscrupulous. But she was never as harrowing as the fiercely loyal woman who starts playing mind games with her new employer.

You also have the incomparable George Sanders playing his English gentleman with biting wit and a touch of blackmail. He becomes pivotal to the story for the very sake that he speaks up on the deceased Rebecca’s behalf as much as Mrs. Danvers does. They adored this woman that Maxim loathed so deeply by the end of their relationship. And it’s in this chafing that the ultimate conflict is uncovered — the type of conflict that threatens to rip Maxim away from his new love and splatter his reputation in the courtroom drama that ensues.

Much like Laura (1944) in her eponymous film, Rebecca lingers over the entire narrative and haunts its frames from start to finish. Yet in the latter work of Otto Preminger, the lady actually makes an appearance on screen incarnated by the entrancing Gene Tierney.

Here Rebecca is a specter who never tries to show herself. There is no physical semblance of her, only signs and references of her being — most memorably the scripted letter “R.” Because, truthfully, she doesn’t need to show her face. She almost wields more power without being seen. It’s that rather unnerving feeling of impending dread that’s hanging over the audience as much as it does Mrs. De Winter.

In the end, Hitchcock didn’t exactly get the murder that he would have liked but in any case, it does not fully take away from the impact of Rebecca. Instead of being a film of overt actions it starts to work on our psyches as a sterling psychological exercise matched by its deliciously dark atmosphere. The mental distress is heightened by the eerie interiors marked by layers of shadow and the shrouded impressionistic seaside that envelops the De Winter compound. Fittingly, Manderley is razed to the ground once and for all.

Ironically enough, though the production is very much on the Hollywood scale, it’s probably the most “British” film that Hitchcock ever made in America based on not only the subject matter but the majority of the acting talent because on top of Olivier and Sanders you have such esteemed character actors as C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Melville Cooper, and Leo G. Carroll (a Hitchcock favorite).

Still, he was blessed with the best talent he had at his disposal since the infancy of his career, in part because of his move across the Atlantic. Joan Harrison who would become one of the most prominent and only female producers in Hollywood turned in work on the script along with Robert E. Sherwood with the score being composed by Hollywood icon Franz Waxman. Even if the players at work are not necessarily evocative of the many trademarks we usually attribute to the director, that hardly makes Rebecca any less of a delight.

Furthermore, there is something inherently honest about the lead portrayals throughout the film. Not necessarily because they’re realistic but they are full of fear and hatred and emotion and you see it in the words and on the faces of the characters. This is hardly a playful film. It’s not trying to subvert drama with humor or dry tonal reversals. But it’s candid in its despair as much as in its joy.

For all their intrigues and complexities in technical feats, storytelling, and psychology, sincerity is not always something you look for in a Hitchcock picture. Here it works. Casting this devasting love story up against the backdrop of gothic horror makes it all the more affecting. The marriage of the talents of David O Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock turns out to be a surprisingly bountiful proposition. Even if it wasn’t made to last.

5/5 Stars

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

the strange affair of uncle harry 1It’s a B-picture title to be sure but with Robert Siodmak and such an ensemble, this is an enticing noir all the same. The well-to-do Quincy family of small-town America are an odd bunch, still holding onto their surname with pride as they slowly drift further and further into obscurity within the walls of their old mansion.

George Sanders is always a perennial favorite due to his dry wit and often snooty manner but here as Harry, we see him as all those things yet also trapped by his circumstances. Ella Raines, unfortunately, one of the often forgotten starlets of the 1940s, plays his savior in a sense and when she comes into his life there’s a chance to shake up all that is monotonous and stuffy about his existence.

Because he is constrained by his family name and a pair of sisters who rely on him continually for moral and emotional support. The eccentric Hester is always carrying an accusatory tone towards the housekeeper and getting bent out of shape about small trifles.

the strange affair of uncle harry 2The dominating sister Letty, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, is more aloof in her ways, veiling everything with a conviction that what she does, she does for the good of her brother. But it’s all really due to the fact that she cannot bear to let him go. In this way, she’s constantly controlling his life and undermining his happiness. She’s hardly your typical femme fatale, more cultured and refined than most, but there’s still something exacting about her.

It’s when the tempered exterior and well-mannered formalities begin to crumble that her ulterior motives become more evident. Feigning illness just to keep him on a string and buying poison for some nefarious purpose. This unnerving dynamic between siblings becomes more tenuous for Harry,  accentuated by the fact that Letty, as played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, is quite attractive.

As far as the ending, there could have been five different outcomes and the one chosen fits the expectations of the contemporary audiences and the censorship board. Frankly, the affability of Ella Raines makes me want to enjoy this denouement, but my appreciation for film-noir makes me realize that this story deserved a dark turn to hammer home a genuinely twisted little picture. Still, Robert Siodmak is time after time one of the most interesting craftsmen of film-noir big and small. So it is with this morsel. Above all, I gained a newfound appreciation for the noteworthy work of Fitzgerald in particular.

3.5/5 Stars

Journey to Italy (1954)

journeytoitaly1Journey to Italy is the splintering of a relationship where the slivers of bitterness begin to wedge themselves under the skin. It’s like slow, painful, nagging torture. Roberto Rossellini’s noted romance film feels like the antithesis of Roman Holiday. It avoids the other film’s bustling streets for more secluded getaways. It leaves behind fairytale romance and fun, for the bitter onset of marriage and middle-age. It seems hardly exciting, mostly driving and sitting, drinking and eating. Rather droll to say the least. And yet this in itself is juxtaposed with lively impassioned tunes and historic pieces of architecture and sculpture snuggled up against the Italian countryside. Because it is a goldmine of culture whether you look at Pompey or the remnants of the Greeks and Romans. There is a glorious history here and yet it makes for a rather meandering backdrop for our two stars Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. Again, Bergman especially was a big name (and at the time Rosselini’s lover) and though usually a supporting player Sanders was usually held in high regard. They feel like the exact inverses of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, in a way that’s rather intriguing.

journeytoitaly2Yet again, as an audience, we do feel like tourists taking in the sights, but this time we’re riding along with a couple who don’t know what to do when they’re alone together. They don’t know what one is to say or how one is to act, because, in all honesty, they haven’t tried too hard. We don’t get much of their backstory, but they are certainly well-off because he takes his work seriously and it shows. But he hasn’t taken his marriage all that seriously and that shows too. His wife is more like his partner in this business endeavor they have going. She keeps up appearances, and he can offer her a lot in return, but hardly love.

It struck me that is a film about a faltering relationship and here is a couple that seems to be apart as much as they are together.They think that the best thing they can do is stay away from each other because no damage can be done that way. There’s jealousy, pettiness, biting sarcasm, all ready and waiting to be unleashed. Alex fosters a liking for a young Italian girl, and although Katherine doesn’t know all the details, she suspects as much from him. To combat Sander’s snide tone that can cut to the quick, Bergman counters with a thick layer of sulking.

journeytoitaly3Thus, I’m not sure about the denouement of this film. Will they stay together or get the divorce that they both seem to have come to terms with? It seems like they might possibly make things work, or is that just the work of the romantic Italian countryside around them? Because no passionate embrace can alleviate and completely overshadow their myriad of problems. They are unable to communicate on a meaningful level, and they treat each other rather poorly more often than not.

In fact, this film is an interesting study, but there is a lack of investment in these characters. After all, it’s only a quick snapshot that gives us a feel for a relationship. I’m probably partial to the similar feeling Before Midnight (2013) because we are already given two films beforehand to truly grow invested in the characters and their story. But there’s no doubt that Rosselini’s film with Bergman and Sanders is well worth the journey.

4/5 Stars

Review: All About Eve (1950)

“FastEveEveMargotCasswellWitten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” ~ Margo Channing

It’s cliche, I do admit, but they simply do not make films like this anymore. Stories about people talking where the actors take center stage. In this case, the story from Joseph L. Mankiewicz is about the Broadway stage and all that happens behind the curtains, in the dressing rooms, and behind the closed doors of the royalty of that profession.There is so much that could be dissected, antagonized over, or acknowledged so I will move through it the best way I know how.

A moment must be spent acknowledging that this is the film that revitalized the career of Bette Davis. She was the tops during the 30s and early 40s, but the role of the histrionic stage icon Margo Channing was her comeback and it thoroughly suited Davis. I have actually never been a fan of hers because I always found her rather arrogant and she scares me visually. However, All About Eve plays on my personal sentiments wonderfully. When we’re first introduced to Margo, she’s everything we expect in a Bette Davis character, and truth be told I don’t really like her. But interestingly enough that changes. That’s where Eve and the rest of the cast come in.

The film is book-ended by the wonderfully wry and snooty commentary of theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He makes it his mission to rake every new play over the coals, and he can be merciless. But he also is a great ally and he proves so for young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Because, after all, this film is her story, we just don’t quite understand why at the beginning.

Eve came from humble roots and was the most devoted young fan of Margo Channing. She would attend every one of her performances and wait outside her dressing room timidly, just to get a glimpse of the star. One of Margo’s best friends Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) was accustomed to seeing the girl and in a kindly gesture she invited Eve up to the dressing room. And just like that Eve had her backstage pass into this world rounded out by Margo Channing, Karen, her husband the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and the young director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) who also happens to be Margo’s suitor.

She begins unassuming enough on the outskirts of their little group. Always seen, not heard. Always thoughtful and ready to be of service. Eve takes on the role of Margo’s personal assistant just like that and an ego like Channing doesn’t mind. In fact, everyone seems to like having her around except the skeptical Birdie (embodied by the always spunky Thelma Ritter).

As time marches on, Eve loses her charm. More and more it feels as if she’s analyzing Margo. Watching her every move. Monitoring her success and slowly moving in. She plants the idea that she can be the next understudy and so it is. One fateful night Karen agrees to stall Margo and Eve gets her big chance as an understudy. She of course politely invites all the major critics to see the performance. It was the conscientious thing to do after all. Ironically, it’s at this point where things turn. Margo becomes the victim and in her great vulnerability, while sharing with Karen, we begin to sympathize with this woman hiding behind the facade of Margo Channing. Meanwhile, Eve continues her ascent using whatever means possible. She alienates Margo and begins driving a wedge between the always amiable working relationship of Lloyd and Bill. Eve even resorts to blackmail and home wrecking sharing her master plot with Addison.

She’s used everybody else and so he seems like the next logical target. However, he’s too much like her. He’s too cynical to fall for her act, and he points out a few chinks in her armor. So like that we end up back at the award ceremony where Eve is about to win her big award. Now we know all the clawing and backstabbing it took for her to get there. Now all that is veiled under her perfectly demure features and charming voice. But we see it on the faces of all the ones who sit there knowingly. Each one knows all too well the damage that this girl has done. She came out of the woodwork, used and abused them because everything was about Eve. Nothing else mattered to her.

But the beauty of the film’s ending is that the cycle continues. Margo is fading away yes, and Eve is taking her place, but that means that there are more Eves where she came from. Young girls obsessed with stardom, fame, and success. It’s a frightening evolution and it proves to be a sharp indictment of the industry as a whole.

The five leads are solid and their performances shift as the Margo-Eve dynamic fluctuates. However, George Sanders is possibly the most enjoyable character, because, despite his cruel wit, he’s the one who is outside of Eve’s influence, or at least he catches her in her charade. There’s something utterly satisfying in that. Also, he has some memorable moments alongside the aspiring Ms. Casswell (none other than the show-stopping Marilyn Monroe in an early role). So really this is a film about the performances and they are well worth it because they suggest that in such a cultured world, so many things lurk under the surface. It might be insecurity, fear, suppressed desire, or savagery. Humanity is most definitely messy, you just have to look behind the curtain sometimes.

5/5 Stars

While the City Sleeps (1956)

whilethecity1While the City Sleeps has a brilliant cold open followed by a pounding title sequence, courtesy of Fritz Lang, that brings to mind a bit of Diabolique and Psycho. The rest of the film turns into a case to find the wanted lipstick murderer (based on a real killer), but that only holds part of our attention.

When newspaper magnate Mr. Kyne dies suddenly, his begrudging son Walter (Vincent Price) takes over intent on shaking up the status quo and putting his mark on the company. He soon turns three men against each other as they desperately fight for the new position of executive director. The first is veteran newspaper editor John Day Griffith (played by the always memorable character actor Thomas Mitchell). The second candidate is chief of the wire service Mark Loving (George Sanders) who is Griffith’s main competitor. Finally, in the third spot is Harry Kritzer who happens to have a secret ace in the hole. Each of them is tasked with finding out the real scoop about the serial killer, and it turns into a real tooth and claw ordeal. Within the glass cubicles, everything can be seen, but not everything is heard and that’s where the secrets get disclosed.

On the outside looking in, so to speak, is star TV reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrew), who agrees to help his friend Griffith by doing a little digging around about the murderer. He gets some tips from a cop friend Lt. Kaufmann (Howard Duff), and Mobley tries to smoke the killer out on air. However, it leads to the potential endangerment of his fiancée Nancy, who also happens to be Loving’s secretary. Loving has his love directed towards a female reporter named Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), who attempts to needle Mobley for info. At the same time, the killer is on the move once more, with Nancy being an obvious target. Mr. Kritzer’s own romantic entanglements get him in trouble because he is seeing Kyne’s beautiful but detached wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Mildred finds out about them and they have some talking to do. Mobley also has some making up to do with Nancy after she finds out Mildred came to see him. It’s a big mess.

whilethecity3Mobley juggles everything from his love life to the big scoop and they apprehend the killer, but things at Kyne’s don’t wind up exactly the way they expected. Mobley looks to move on from the paper with Nancy, but even he cannot get away that easily.

While the City Sleeps is an underrated tale from Lang that is positively stacked with big names. Its pacing can be deliberate at times, but it is just as much an indictment of journalism as it is a thriller. The office is a web of deception with so many interconnections between these work factions. Those you would normally expect to be scrupulous seem to give up their honor in the face of this new promotion. In a sense, Mobley seems to be outside of this fray and yet he cannot help but get involved in it. It doesn’t help that nothing turns out the way it’s supposed to. Everybody seems to gain something, but nobody really wins the game.

I must say it was great to see Dana Andrews in one of these leading roles again and although their roles were smaller, Ida Lupino and George Sanders still were a deliciously stuffy and corrupt pair. I was never really a fan of Vincent Price due to the roles he normally plays, but I was inclined to like Howard Duff (Lupino’s real-life husband) in his turn as the policemen. It goes without saying that Rhonda Fleming is positively beautiful, but she also cannot be trusted. I guess that applies to about every character in this film. It’s certainly a cynical world out there that Lang paints, where the killer might be caught, but corruption is never fully quelled.

4/5 Stars