Anne of The Indies (1951)

“What should it trouble a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul” – Herbert Marshall

There’s not a finer prospect I can think of than a Jacques Tourneur-helmed swashbuckler starring Jean Peters as a swarthy pirate who terrorizes the high seas. At this point in her career, Peters had yet to garner a starring role. Pictures like Pickup on South Street and Niagara were still in her future, but she more than proves her salt, taking to the role ferociously. The best part is that regardless of its humble running time, this is the kind of material an actor can really sink their teeth into.

Her Captain Providence proves fierce and stout-hearted in a sea of growling seafarers. Despite being one of the few women on the landscape, she’s a domineering captain of the ship who wears her sea legs well; there’s a believable pitilessness about her.

It’s the only way one survives such a climate. In their opening takeover of a ship from the British fleet, we get a perfect showcase for their merciless treatment of any foe. It primes our expectations going forward.

However, there is one uncharacteristic move our protagonist makes by pardoning a man they find shackled in the brig. He is a Frenchman (Louis Jourdan). Her right hand man is distrustful of such a rogue, but the enigmatic fellow becomes an addition to the crew after appealing to the captain’s judgment.

If she has anything close to a resident conscience, it would be the jaded doctor (Herbert Marshall), who cares for the crew’s ailments while also keeping her apprised of the words of scripture and what scrupulous men might do. This is very much the war playing out within the character. She tries to maintain her mastery of the sea while also grappling with love, opening herself up, and risking an admission of weakness.

For instance, feminity is not something to be flaunted, but Jourdan’s La Rochelle manages to coax it out of her. Like other wenches, she’s fallen for a man. He effectively comes between her and the only mentor she’s ever known.

Thomas Gomez takes on the larger-than-life task of Black Beard. He is both mentor and partial antagonist worthy of all the scurvy legends and tall tales that have been spun about him over the years. He’s armed with an agreeable bluster full of throaty good humor but also the edge of prickly menace. It makes him more threatening as the story progresses because he doesn’t forget a grudge easily.

Their initial fight is everything we could ask for in a rousing duel between a pair of boisterous daredevils. However, if this is what they do in a jocund company, you can only imagine what it will look like when animosity is stirred up between them.

Debra Padget is hardly a flash in the pan and for all the solid pictures she was a part of, more often than not it seems like she’s given very little to do. Once again she shows up as a pretty albeit sympathetic face. In this picture, she’s a fitting contract to Anne, if little else. She was rarely allowed anything more substantial.

It’s easy enough to summarize the latter half of the picture as a game of successive feints and parries back and forth with several lovely offensive thrusts from both sides. They’ll see it through to the end hell or high water, cannonballs raining down, masts crashing, fires burning all over. If it’s not obvious already, there can only be one victor in the fight to the death and the total subjugation of the sea.

The ending is another twist of romanticism. To me, it does twinge with the feelings of a cop-out, but it brings back Black Beard to fight it out with his old yard arm. They were meant to meet one final time. Except for this time, his old accomplice has been stricken with a momentary conscience. She takes her furious grit and puts it to use in one final stand of sacrificial defiance. Still, the famed pirate goes out much the way she came in as a titan among men.

There are few things I abhor more than a bloated picture where the scenery and the running time get away from the filmmakers. While Tourneur’s not anti-epic, he takes shorter, more compact material and still manages to give it the scale and import of much larger pictures. He did it with horror, westerns, and certainly swashbucklers like this one. Because genre pictures have the auspicious opportunity to offer their spectators atmosphere — all kinds of atmosphere — and we see it in spades with Tourneur. This surely is one of his finest attributes as a director.

Part of me still marvels that they actually made a movie like this in the early 1950s. But that quickly dissipates in lieu of a total appreciation for what this cast and crew are able to conjure up onscreen. It’s like they had the key to rousing swashbucklers that we’ve all pretty much forgotten. For a picture that very few people seem to remember today, Anne of the Indies is a good time, and a novel one at that.

3.5/5 Stars

Angel (1937): A Mature Lubitsch Love Triangle

For those familiar with Trouble in Paradise, Angel has a  sublime outside-the-window tracking shot in its own right to bring us flush into the world of Parisian soirees. Thusly, we become acquainted with Russian Grand Duchess Anna (Laura Hope Crews), who facilitates meetings between men and women. 

It’s possible to barely catch the subtext here. What’s apparent is by the sheer serendipity of cinema Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas wind up in a drawing-room together. Dietrich feels particularly laid back. Normally, she’s beautifully aloof; here it’s a bit different because she’s not looking to maintain an aura at all. It makes her all the more genial.

Joseph Von Sternberg always cast and projected Dietrich as a screen goddess. Working with Lubitsch, Dietrich feels like a far more relatable human being albeit a beautiful, refined one. She doesn’t totally overwhelm with her sensuality remaining mostly reserved. 

Tony Halton (Douglas) is in town for the day and is looking for a time. She offers up the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower (that big steel thing sticking up in the air), and Notre Dame. No offense to “The City of Light,” but none of them pique his interest. The lady in front of his eyes is far more incandescent. She’s a bonafide angel.  

It’s true there’s something fresh and appealing about their interaction. They don’t know one another’s names nor does she bother to correct the mistaken identity, and it doesn’t matter. In fact, it even augments what they have because they are so fascinated by one another. It means a dinner invitation and spending the night together. This could be the movie right there. 

Then, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall) is shown aboard a screeching steam engine 20 minutes into the picture. We almost forgot about him, and we take a total about-face toward events that remain interrelated. Before we ever meet the man, we learn he must be a gentleman of some renown because he’s all over the papers. 

He is served faithfully by his fastidious manservant (Edward Everett Horton), Graham, who has the ear of a very powerful man. He’s seen his fair share of diplomatic affairs: dinners, white ties, and tailcoats. They make him quick to judge the merits of international diplomats. Because his master is one of the finest, single-handedly standing up to 21 countries in The League of Nations (not including the U.S.). 

Barker returns home late one evening to be reunited with his wife Maria (Dietrich). It’s obvious they have affection for one another — they care deeply about their marriage — but before she fell for another man, there was already a third party in their relationship: his work. 

To grasp at obvious metaphors, there’s a tinge of Casablanca married with a kind of Melvyn Douglas Ninotchka romance and the stuffy propriety of Cluny Brown. Take, for instance, the melange of servants headlined exquisitely by Horton and Ernest Cossart.

In perfect Lubitschian fashion, a dinner is viewed from the kitchen’s point of view as they perceptively observe two of their dinner guests are out of sorts. They didn’t touch their food. They weren’t hungry. Although it’s never said outright, Lubitsch allows us to put two and two together. One can only surmise it’s due to lovesickness. 

Because there is only one way this movie can get more complicated and more painful. The men must meet. However, far from being antagonistic, they are old friends meeting on a whim. Once upon a time, they shared a French girl all the way back during the war years when they were both still young. Whether they know it or not, they also share another girl: Angel. They have no idea the beehive that’s been kicked. Lubitsch only gives that to us. We are resigned to watching the outcomes. 

The hourglass structure of the movie means we must end where we began. We know time is running out. We are back in Paris, back with the Duchess, and she performs her narrative duties a bit like a maestro. Unwittingly or not, she has all the main players stashed away in different drawing rooms. It’s inevitable that they find each other. The situation calls for it. There is no other possible resolution. 

In the olden days, you have a sense this film would have been lithe and effervescent as only Lubtisch could offer up. Standing before us are all his penchants for drawing rooms, the affluent classes, and their servants. 

But what sets Angel apart is the tone and the profound solemnity Lubitsch often brings to the proceedings. The melancholy of the central love triangle is unmistakable even in the final minutes of the film. In this case, it’s difficult to totally dismiss the extravagance. Still, we’ve come to understand these people, both their passions and their nobility. Because Lubitsch’s films somehow compel me the most when they grab hold of such feelings, where the emotions cut far deeper than the surface ironies. 

As far as Dietrich’s concerned, it might be one of her greatest performances. In the place of ostentatious allure, there stands a quiet dignity comfortable with silence. The whole movie is made in such a mode where these interludes develop the longing. In a quiet encapsulation, husband and wife walk out of the giant estate both together and apart. Their marriage still standing but on the verge of dissolution.  It’s not so much a paradox as it is an indication of the tenuous nature of their lives moving forward.

3.5/5 Stars

Trouble in Paradise (1932): The Grift of Love

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Ernst Lubitsch made a name for himself and his “touch” in silents as well as leaving an indelible mark on the 1940s with the likes of Shop Around The Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Cluny Brown (1946). But for me, no film better personifies his wit and sensibilities than Trouble in Paradise. It proves to be the most impeccable distillation of his directorial style.

The script is courtesy of Samson Raphaelson who would become a longtime collaborator with the director on future projects. Aided by uncredited edits by Lubitsch, the story is imbued with class in the guise of light comedy.

There’s a certain cadence to the cutting and the music. A constant winking that seems to be going on. And it’s simultaneously the height of refined elegance while being undercut with constant nudges and proddings of comic verve. What is noticeable is the economical sophistication of the filmmaking and a seasoned eye for how to tell a story by the best means possible. It’s not always what you would expect.

Consider the film in its early moments as a case and point. It could have started so many ways and yet Lubitsch chose something different. A trash heap, a shadowy fugitive, then a man knocked out on his floor and an almost incomprehensibly daring shot that moves us to another building entirely where we meet our protagonist. It’s all so very enigmatic and almost wordless aside from the bellowing of the gondolier. The man on the balcony rightfully asserts to the waiter attentively standing in the wings, “Beginnings are never easy.” So right he is.

Nevertheless, the film continues to put on a lovely charade concealing its finest secret until the perfect instant to milk the quarries of its humorous intentions for all they are worth. We are introduced to a tryst featuring two great romantics caught up in the rapturous trills of amour.

They sit down to a divine dinner that plays as an intimate tete-a-tete. But soon the curtain drops and they don’t skip a beat as she ousts him as the famed burglar Gaston Monescu and he comes back perfectly charming to accuse her of being a pickpocket herself. She tickled him when she nicked his spoils but her embrace was so sweet. He couldn’t help being touched.

In even these early interludes it becomes obvious that the talent couldn’t be better with Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins falling into their roles seamlessly with a certain amount of relish. Playing a romantic pair of thieves is a fine proposition after all. The world is their oyster and they’re in love. What could be better?

Meanwhile, Edward Everett Horton has an exchange with the police that I can’t but help compare with I Love Lucy’s famous language transfer. So much is lost amid the words and Horton always was an oblivious sort, God bless him.

However, the character who will prove to be the third in our triangle of cultured passion is Colet (Kay Francis) a glamorous heiress in control of a cosmetic empire. Francis embodies the ravishing role flawlessly even despite her well-documented speech impediment. It’s nearly imperceptible if you’re not looking for it.

Far from detracting from her performance it simply increases our sympathy for her. She may be rich — even out of touch with the world at large — but she’s hardly arrogant. She’s easily taken in and a bit cavalier with her money while two men are vying for her affection.

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Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles are both exemplary. I realized perhaps it was something moving deep within me telling me those voices were meant to go together. How right I was. Years later Rocky & Bullwinkle serials would have been a great deal less without them. Just as they make this picture that much better. Horton’s pitch-perfect quizzical look (tonsils, positively tonsils) is wonderfully matched by Ruggles own befuddled mannerisms. Still, I digress.

Of course, we see it already. It is Colet’s vast array of jewels that are of particular interest to a third man: Gaston. Except he’s a clever fellow. Instead of just stealing them at the theater he snatches them so he can give them back to her and in turn gain her confidence with his delicate preening of her ego and artful debonair flattery. He’s skilled and she’s a fairly easy mark.

Soon, he’s hired on as her secretary and it has little to do with his current resume, based on probably one of the films most remembered exchanges that pretty much sums up the tone:

“Madame Colet, if I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking – in a business way, of course.”

“What would you do if you were my secretary?”

“The same thing.”

“You’re hired.”

His wife AKA his Secretary is getting antsy and a little jealous providing one of the film’s other perfectly inflected quips (If you’re a gentleman, I’ll kill you!). Still, her hubby reassures her all of Colet’s sex appeal is in her safe, 1,000s of francs worth of it. But he’s not as impervious as he would like to believe.

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Lubitsch has the finesse to film an entire extended sequence of only a clock with the dialogue playing over it. The romantic interplay is understood without visual cues. We nod in acknowledgment. They’re also almost more romantic when they don’t kiss than when they do, floating inches from each other’s faces, eyes closed in a reverie.  Gliding on air. We begin to suspect whether this is still a put on or if it is, in fact, becoming real. Gaston is good but his wife is getting anxious and she has every right to be.

The family bookkeeper (C. Aubrey Smith) is skeptical of his qualifications and his identity. But the kicker is that Gaston is finally remembered by Monsieur Filiba and only time will tell when his cover is blown.

It’s time to get out of there and yet something keeps him back. He feels compelled to fess up to Colet and yet there’s no calling of the authorities or any of that. She’s far too wealthy to care. It’s what could have been that she will miss and he knows it too. In the end, he still goes out the door and she lets him. No consequences. No real drama.

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There’s no need because that’s not what the film hinges on. It’s the love story and not just the love but how it plays out in this theater of refinement which Lubitsch has incubated to perfection. Undubitably there is trouble in paradise, even wistfulness sometimes, but that doesn’t mean things cannot be resolved.

Husband and wife go out much as they came in — not able to keep their hands off each other — or out of each other’s pockets. Try and put a name to it if you must. It’s the “grift of love.” How sweet it is.

4.5/5 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

Murder! (1930)

Murder_hitch.jpgAlfred Hitchcock captures the pure bedlam that overtakes a neighborhood when their peaceful dreams are rudely disrupted by an awful din. As is customary everyone is in a foul mood, peers out their windows, bickers with everyone else, and moves into action.

Then in a split second, everything’s beastly still. The reason: The dead body lying on the floor discovered by the policeman making his rounds. The blunt instrument is at the feet of a disoriented young actress who looks to be the obvious culprit. But there has to be more to this story than what meets the eye. This cannot be as simple as we are led to believe. It’s a stellar environment to introduce a murder. Acting as one of Hitch’s few whodunits, Murder! involves itself with the rest of a stage acting troupe full of players.

Still, in the ensuing court hearing, the aspiring starlet, Diana finds her life on the line in the hands of a jury. Their deliberations feel a bit like 12 Angry Men (1957) as Sir John (Herbert Marshall) is hustled and hurried into coming to a guilty verdict by groupthink as the one remaining holdout.

In these sequences, there’s a sense that Hitchcock has a bit of frustration with the state of affairs with the legal system or if nothing else a great interest in its functions much like Fritz Lang did in pictures like M (1931), Fury (1936), and You Only Live Once (1937). But it’s truly a Hitchcock touch to have the pronouncement of death given as the camera continues to focus on a worker cleaning up the juror’s room. But it’s key that the story does not end here, rather like The Phantom Lady (over a decade later) there’s more to the story and only one man is interested in figuring it out. Because of his sheer fortitude, it’s understandable that he becomes our hero.

Sir John finds himself in a bit of a moral dilemma (as denoted with an early example of character voiceover) because he feels partially responsible for the problems assailing young Diana and he resolves to do something about it. Unfortunately, the film’s latter half slogs on a bit as Sir John calls upon the services of Ted Markum and his wife — two witnesses in the opening scene — to help close in on the real killer. The individual they suspect to be the culprit. However, the real trouble is not simply pinning the murder on this perpetrator but also figuring out how they did it.

A woman’s life hangs in the balance as the gallows sit menacingly in her future. Still, Hitchcock uses some cruel poetic justice to tie his story’s loose ends up. A trapeze act gets a lot more morbid than ever before and again Hitchcock returns to human tumult which livens up his picture moderately and makes Murder! truly worthy of its name. In such instances, there are obvious signs of the master at work. Otherwise, this is hardly Hitchcock’s most diverting offering in the genre.

3/5 Stars

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

06cc8-razors_edgeAdapted from the novel by Somerset Maugham, this drama films stars Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, and Herbert Marshall. The film opens after WW I with an air force vet who is engaged to a young socialite. They are in love and yet he wants to discover the meaning of life before he settles down. She reluctantly lets him go to Paris while she remains in the states. While Larry lives in Paris and travels to the Himalayas their childhood friend Sophie gets in a car accident which kills her husband and baby. Isabel had tried one last time to win Larry back but with that not working she decides to marry the affluent Grey instead. Soon we learn that Grey lost everything in the Crash and he had a nervous breakdown. In Paris Maugham meets his old acquaintances and Larry helps Grey with his problem. They then encounter a drunken Sophie in a Parisian night club. Larry also helps her and decides to marry her. Isabel will have none of it and she leads Sophie back into alcoholism only for us to find out later that she was murdered later on. With Elliot on his deathbed Larry also does him a favor and afterward he correctly ascertains that Isabel led Sophie to drink. He moves on content and she can only be consoled by Maugham. Some interesting questions were brought up but it doesn’t seem that Larry figured everything out completely.

4/5 Stars

Foreign Correspondent (1940) – Alfred Hitchcock

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this film stars a cast including Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, and George Sanders. Wanting a good scoop about events in Europe a newspaper editor sends a reporter off to dig something up. Joel McCrea’s character finds himself entangled in a complicated kidnapping scheme and assassination. On top of that he falls in love while on the job. With no one believing him at first, he must try and gather the facts that ultimately might lead to a war. Dodging two attempts on his own life, he knows he is getting close. However, little does he know how near he actually is. After more twists and turns McCrea finally gets his story and the girl but at a cost. From the scenes in the windmill until the tense moments on the plane, this movie does much to intrigue. It serves a double purpose, a decent piece of propaganda and a good thriller.

4/5 Stars

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

73432-troubleinparadise1932Starring Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins with director Ernst Lubitsch, this film is a funny pre-code era romantic comedy. A man and a woman crook meet each other in Venice and after wreaking some havoc they fall in love and get married. The two of them move to Paris in order to pull a big heist on the elegant Collete perfume tycoon. Things get complicated when the male crook begins to fall in love with her. Furthermore, her two other suitors get jealous and eventually realize where they have seen him before! Then his wife learns what is going on and she is jealous. He sadly breaks off his relationship with the lady he meant to rob. But once a pick pocket always a pick pocket and he and his wife make up. For being an early 1930s film, I particularly enjoyed this one. Lubitsch did a fine job directing and there is a lot of wit.

4.5/5 Stars

The Heiress (1949)

fa57e-heiress_wylerStarring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift with director William Wyler, the film takes place in New York in the 1840s. Catherine is a shy and awkward young woman who lives with her domineering father who is a prominent widowed doctor. At a party a young man introduces himself and begins seeing Catherine frequently. Quickly their plans turn to marriage but her father will not approve. Since her lover is not rich, he sees him as a fortune hunter. Catherine decides to elope with her love, but he never returns leaving her feeling rejected and forlorn. soon the doctor gets ill and dies, but the relationship does not end will since Catherine blames her father. And in the process she has grown cold. Clift’s character finally returns and after some reluctance Catherine seems to agree to get married. he leaves to gather some belongings only to return to a bolted door. Catherine gives him some rejection of his own after what she endured. This films becomes interesting because you do not know who was truly in the right. First Clift seems to be the heel and then de Havilland evolves so much the audience turns on her.

4/5 Stars

The Little Foxes (1941)

Starring a cast including Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and Teresa Wright, the film opens in the South circa 1900 and it revolves around a greed woman and her two conniving brothers who hope to make millions off mills. Regina sends her innocent daughter Alexandra to bring her ill father home so the deal can be settled. He returns very worn down and he will not take part in the venture. It leaves his wife angry and her brothers dishonestly acquire the rest of the funds they need. Horace inadvertently finds out but he will not let Regina tell on them. However, Regina coldly looks on when the sick man needs her most and very soon after he passes away. Now she has her brothers where she wants them, allowing her greed to show through completely. She has gained so much and yet in the process she loses something so valuable in her daughter. The title comes from the book of Songs of Solomon and it perfectly describes these greedy people. I felt the main actors did a wonderful job in this film under the direction of the great William Wyler.

4.5/5 Stars