Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: John Huston

In our ongoing series of beginner’s guides for up-and-coming classic movie enthusiasts, we thought it would be well worth it to acknowledge one of Hollywood’s larger-than-life directors in John Huston.

Before starting out as a screenwriter, he galvanized his reputation collaborating with Humphrey Bogart and simultaneously helping shape the genre that would ultimately be labeled “film noir” by the French. His own career proved the film industry could be a family affair as he worked with both his father, Walter Huston and then his daughter, Angelica Huston, at the bookend of his own career.

Here are 4 of his most iconic films:

The Maltese Falcon (1941) - Images - IMDb

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Based on Dashiell Hammett’s indelible private eye, Huston’s Maltese Falcon is singular in its own right and it had to be. Not only was there the source material, but also an earlier film version. While Humphrey Bogart has none of the protagonist’s written characteristics, it’s immaterial. In a perceptive stroke, Huston pulled prose from the novel while creating taut, atmospheric, highly choreographed visuals to augment the performances. Consider Key Largo or The Asphalt Jungle for more noir thrills.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948)

One could easily argue it was John Huston who helped usher in a groundbreaking generation of on-location shooting in a more mobile post-war Hollywood. Armed with two dynamic performances from Bogart and his chipper father Walter Huston, this epochal story of greed is an absorbing drama about the souring of humanity. It’s doesn’t need no stinkin’ badge to prove it either.

New on DVD: 'The African Queen' - The New York Times

The African Queen (1951)

Whether or not it feels like a departure for John Huston (Beat the Devil or Heaven Knowns, Mr. Allision could be considered the same), The African Queen is a stellar adventure piece bolstered by two of the most inimitable players: Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Carving through the jungles makes fast friends of the two great giants of Classic Hollywood, and Huston makes it a gripping time at the movies.

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Chinatown (1974)

Many will probably note John Huston did not direct Chinatown. For some of his contemporary work behind the camera, consider Fat City or The Man Who Would Be King. However, his beguiling performance as Noah Cross, in one of the preeminent neo-noirs, is too good a turn to pass up in this acknowledgment. Despite the palpable charm, he undermines it with a deliciously despicable underbelly — much like 1930s Los Angeles.

Worth Watching

Jezebel, High Sierra, Sergeant York, The Killers, The Red Badge of Courage, Moby Dick, The Misfits, Night of the Iguana, **The Other Side of The Wind, Wise Blood, Prizzi’s Honor, The Dead, etc.

 

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Katharine Hepburn

I’m back at it again with a new Beginner’s Guide where we take a famous person and make their lengthy career manageable by picking 4 films to watch in order to get your feet wet.¬†Here’s a jumping-off point for Katharine Hepburn.

I make a point of not quantifying actors by how many awards they’ve won. Still, she did win 4 Oscars! There’s little else to say. She was a gem.

Little Women (1933)

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I’m partial to this film because Hepburn exudes all the attributes of Jo March for me. The cast is a fine array of young talent and if you have any attachment to Louisa May Alcott’s material, it’s hard not to appreciate the antiquated candor of this one.

Philadelphia Story (1940)

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It’s almost old-hat to mention Katharine Hepburn was considered “Box Office Poison” at this time in her career (after “failures” like Bringing Up Baby and Holiday). So, of course, I mention it. But Philadelphia Story reestablished her and to this day remains one of her finest vehicles. With director George Cukor, James Stewart, Cary Grant, and Ruth Hussey, what could go wrong?

The African Queen (1951)

Bogart and Hepburn. It’s about as indelible a pair as you can get onscreen. They hardly disappoint in this character piece by John Huston setting the two seafarers off on a conflict-filled adventure through the swamps aboard the titular vessel. As a side note, it’s rather reminiscent of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison featuring two other luminaries.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

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It’s as much an ending as a beginning. Hepburn was well-known for her on and off-screen romances with Spencer Tracy who was deathly ill. This film would be his last and capped off a partnership that included the likes of Woman of The Year and Adam’s Rib (On second thought, go watch this!). There’s so much history there and they work wonders together one final time.

Worth Watching:

Stage Door, Summertime, The Lion in Winter, On Golden Pond, and so many more!

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1940s Film Noir

In our ongoing series to help budding classic movie fans know where to start, I thought it would be fitting time to offer up 4 movies to try and summarize the film noir movement.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s literally the French word for “black” and it has come to describe mostly American crime films of the 1940s and 50s. Most people are probably familiar with archetypes like detectives in trenchcoats, deadly femme fatales, and brooding voiceover narration setting up flashbacks on dark and stormy nights.

It’s a foolhardy task to give just 4 examples, but we’ve done our very best here by following our gut:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Often considered the origin of film noir, John Huston’s debut picture is the prototype for detective fiction, based on Dashiell Hammett’s pulp gumshoe Sam Spade. It made an icon out of Humphrey Bogart while the rogue gallery filled out by the likes of Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet is truly the stuff dreams are made of.

Double Indemnity (1944)

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Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is among the preeminent femme fatales. Absolutely bad to the bone and deadly gorgeous. But she needs an accomplice, in this case, Fred MacMurray as the opportunistic insurance peddler Walter Neff.¬†It’s film noir partially domesticated, channeling the sleaze of James M. Cain with a deliciously cynical adaptation by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Sometimes murder smells like honeysuckle.

Laura (1944)

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Laura is film noir at it’s most dream-like and illusory with our title heroine (Gene Tierney) mesmerizing everyone including the hard-nosed detective (Dana Andrews) bent on solving her murder. David Raksin’s score helps weave the magic placed against Otto Preminger’s impeccable mise en scene and a particularly petty ensemble led by Clifton Webb.

Out of The Past (1947)

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This one checks all the boxes. Laconic hero with cigarette and trenchcoat: Robert Mitchum. A beguiling woman of destruction and deceit: Jane Greer. Gloriously stylized cinematography from the master of shadows: Nicholas Musuraca, and all the digressions and double-crosses you might expect with a labyrinthian investigation.¬†What’s more, the past always comes back to haunt you. Film noir is nothing if not fatalistic.¬†

Worth Watching:

Murder My Sweet, Woman in The Window, Scarlet Street, Mildred Pierce, Detour, The Big Sleep, Leave Her to Heaven, The Killers, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nightmare Alley, The Third Man, White Heat, Criss Cross and so, so many more.

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

Three on a Match (1932): The Epitome of Hollywood Pre-Code

ThreeOnAMatch.jpgThe Pre-Code era of Hollywood is a legitimate marvel because in a span of only a few solitary years was a period of filmmaking bursting at the seams with vice, corruption, and licentiousness that we would never see again until the late 1960s.

One could say that each of these elements was merely an exploitive¬†measure to get folks in the sits. No question about it. However, that’s not to say the era is devoid of meaning nor is¬†Three on a Match any less evocative. In retrospect, we look at something like this and it’s not simply a cultural artifact for us to engage with, one could assert just as vehemently that it was more indicative of the human condition than many later films coming out of the Hollywood mills. Scan the contemporary news columns and you might have to agree. In fact, that’s much of what director Mervyn LeRoy does.

He rapidly spans time with a proliferation of news clippings. They are not simply a montage effect but a continual storytelling device that are almost sinews to this story which must function with hyperawareness of its timescale. Ricocheting with time jumps that you almost get used to by the end and¬†each one is out of pure necessity. Remember with 63 minutes you have to scrimp with every minute.¬†From a historical perspective alone, it’s an absolute goldmine with cinematic images to fit right alongside the current events.

The title Three on a Match seems a foreign concept now but it comes from the old wive’s tale that if three people light a cigarette from the same match the odds are one of them will die. It is often incorrectly cited as originating in the trenches during WWI. Instead, it was the advertising¬†gimmick of a¬†Swedish matchbox salesman to drum up more business.

The story itself ambitiously begins in adolescence with three girls. Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) is the wayward one who looks to be headed toward a reformatory and sure enough, she grows up and winds up in such a life. Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) is the purported “good girl” who ends up with a fine education and marrying a wealthy lawyer (Warren Williams) but she finds her life and her marriage dull and unfulfilling. Meanwhile, little Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) has grown up into a pretty stenographer who nevertheless is relegated to playing the third fiddle. No matter, Davis would get her revenge in an illustrious career to come.

The root of the drama crops up from Vivian’s dissatisfaction with life because being the understanding husband that he is, Mr. Kirkwood proposes she take a trip away with their little son so she can clear her mind and come back refreshed. She jumps at the opportunity.

Adultery is such an insidious thing¬†since you never consciously think you are going to be unfaithful; I imagine it just¬†ambushes you as it does for Vivian. She meets a man (Lyle Talbot) who is charming and the bubbly is flowing. She has¬†few cares in the world and conveniently has¬†neglected¬†her son. Whom does she have to thank for this good time? Why, it’s Mary. Except¬†Mary has changed; she’s a different person, chiding her old classmate to think before she throws her life away. The tides have changed with the reprobate teaching the classy one something about life.

To divulge any more would ruin the surprise but there’s little doubt, it’s sordid stuff with some mild sense of morality. We have drugs, adultery, scandal, and suicide all rolled up into one tightly woven package. Dvorak is devastating in her self-destructive spiral as Blondell commands the film’s stalwart center.

The most unexpected star is little Junior who is a precocious performer, lovable in every scene he shares with his bevy of costars but also a striking reminder of how innocent children are. To neglect them is to disregard the imperative of parenthood to provide for your progeny with an unselfish, unswerving, sacrificial love.

The rest of the gang are all assigned their assorted parts that became their mainstays. Humphrey Bogart becomes the quintessential heavy in a matter of moments. Ed Arnold is the exacting kingpin overseeing everything. Allen Jenkins is another tough customer with little heart or soul.

It might do well as a companion piece to Night Nurse, which also involves little children being exploited. Joan Blondell gives a spunky turn in both even as the plots verge on the utterly ludicrous and are remembered now as much for their louche content than the actual details of their plots. Part of that has to do with how unusual it seems, especially with the laissez-faire attitude of the production codes at the time.

But also in this specific case, the Lindberg kidnapping indubitably was still¬†fresh in the minds of the viewing public, lending some credence to the believability of such a tale. That’s the key. However absurdly a plotline might slingshot this way or that, as long as something grounds it, even momentarily, in reality, it can captivate us. Three on a Match is not a¬†phenomenal film outright¬†but within its means, it manages to be economically diverting.

3/5 Stars

 

 

The Enforcer (1951)

220px-The_Enforcer_1951.JPGNot that this should deter you completely but The Enforcer isn’t a particularly¬†unique¬†crime film¬†by any stretch of the imagination. Still, we have Humphrey Bogart headlining¬†the police procedural not unlike a Call Northside 777 (1948), The Naked City (1948), or Panic in the Streets (1950).

He’s the acting district attorney entrenched in¬†the war against syndicated crime in the city. And the case he has topples like a house of cards when his one key witness is terminated. All the efforts¬†behind four long years of tireless legwork go out the window.

They knew that it was¬†an expansive¬†operation with a multitude of contracts, a laundry list of hit men, and an¬†undertaker on the payroll. They subsequently unearthed abandoned cars, drained marshes for the dead bodies, and questioned countless others who were purported to be involved. And yet it all seemed all for naught. No one knew enough or else they weren’t talking.

But Martin Ferguson (Bogart) is not about to let his case against the wanted crime boss Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane) crumble that easily. There’s got to be another way to nab him. The script from Martin Rackin spends the majority of the time filling in all the details. In fact, he probably spends too much time¬†before finally¬†tacking on¬†Bogart`s last-minute hunch almost as if it were an afterthought.

Ultimately, The Enforcer could almost be called a Raoul Walsh picture as the veteran director and friend of Humphrey Bogart took over the project when the incumbent Bretaigne Windust was taken seriously ill early in production.

No disrespect to Mr. Windust at all but the film got a leg up thanks to Raoul Walsh who directed many of the film’s more volatile sequences, capturing the action with bullets flying and fists flailing — brought to us with his usual dynamism. That¬†counteracts¬†some of the¬†faulty¬†storytelling that bogs the¬†plot down.

The narrative structure¬†is strikingly similar to aspects of The Killers (1946) but it’s hardly executed in the same gripping fashion. In fact, the layering of the flashbacks is hardly ideal even if it feels canonically very typical of what we often term noir. By the film’s end, whether or not the story gets told feels beside the point but nevertheless, Walsh manages to provide us with a decently tense climax that satiates¬†some of¬†our clamorings for a quality ending.

The film’s better assets are a few of the supporting cast members that help to¬†add color to the procedural. We are treated to the typical menagerie of seedy characters including Ted de Corsia, Jack Lambert, and Zero Mostel. But the kingpin of them all is Everett Sloane. I can’t decide if it’s simply an uncharacteristic role for the actor or simply a poor bit of casting for the role of the boss of Murder Inc. But no matter, it is what it is.

There are also no femme fatales and very few female characters to speak of at all.¬†For one moment, a woman is important: one Angela Vetto. Otherwise, it’s pretty bleak going.¬†Even Bogart is not particularly interesting¬†per se but he is still Bogart, making his scenes worth watching at the very least because he’s more than believable in any incarnation as a tough guy.

3/5 Stars

Review: In a Lonely Place (1950)

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Director Nicholas Ray customarily takes his material and subverts our expectations or better yet deconstructs the conventions that we often take for granted. But this is also matched with his penchant for showing a very raw and honest percolation of emotion. It causes every one of his movies to leave a perceptible toll on the audience because it’s difficult to have any other response. In a Lonely Place is another textbook example.

Here is a film with a murder plot which would normally be of primary concern. Instead, it ends up falling by the wayside to become nearly unimportant. It sounds almost callous to make such a claim since a life is at stake but then there is a bit of a detached quality permeating the picture.

A brooding Humphrey Bogart is at his most explosive as screenwriter Dixon Steele, a man with some talent, but a very odd way of exercising it. He’s an exasperating case for many in the industry, including his agent. Art Smith provides a wonderfully vivid performance as the agent nursing his ulcers while still faithfully standing by his client despite the turbulent nature of his temper. (Coincidentally Smith was featured in the earlier Dorothy B. Hughes adaptation Ride the Pink Horse).

It’s true “Dix” can be a tough man to figure out. Bogart may have played more appreciated, more iconic characters but there’s something especially raw about him here.

On top of Bogart’s performance, this is Nicholas Ray’s own examination of the Hollywood industry’s mechanisms, spitting out has-beens and flops as much as fame and fortune. There’s the continuous inner conflict between making a smash — the kind of trashy stuff that sells — and then trying to create something of worth on the spectrum of art.

If we had to draw up thematically similar films, All About Eve is a more flamboyant choice and Sunset Blvd. boasts the cynical edge but In a Lonely Place probably deserves to keep the same company with these noted classics from 1950 as a film of truly morose sentiments. It’s not simply cutting through the artifice of Hollywood. It’s trying to provide a deeper study of the people who are cogs of the industry.

After a precocious hat check girl (Martha Stewart) is found murdered it sets off an investigation by the police force. As Steele had requested the girl come over to his home to give him the plot summary of the low brow novel he is meant to adapt, just hours before her demise, he is placed on the top of the lists of suspects.

Conveniently, his neighbor across the courtyard, a bit part actress (Gloria Grahame at her most aloof and restrained), who he hardly knows, is brought in and vouches she saw him and it’s not a lie. He really was at home and he did not commit the crime.

If we wanted to, we could leave the story¬†right there¬†but that’s not all the film is working away at. It unravels in other ways too. In another world, this almost voyeuristic setting could have been made for Rear Window (1954) but this is not that film either.

Frank Lovejoy is the average cop with a thoughtful wife (Ms. Jeff Donnell) — a genuinely nice guy who knows “Dix” from back in their war days. He takes orders but he also has an inherent confidence in Steele as a human being. At any rate, he wouldn’t be prone to killing girls and so Brub helps to humanize this man in the eyes of the audience.

And yet there are still some troubling caveats on Dixon Steele. He owns a history of violent outbreaks but it goes beyond this. There’s a raging darkness that is part of his makeup as a character. He is tortured by hatred and by his own accompanying desolation. We can chalk it up to a number of things. His own personality. His lack of consistency. The often cruel industry that became his livelihood. It could be any number of these things or all of them.

In fact, for a film noir, the outcomes prove to be unique. It has murder but we never see it. There’s an actress who played countless femme fatales playing a slightly different iteration here. Even Bogart, though carrying a simmering temper that goes off on several occasions, is generally not a hardboiled heavy. Just a tormented screenwriter with demons to exorcize.

Beating up a college kid doesn’t go with the glorified and gritty brutality that might crop up in a Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946). It’s just callous barbarity in the normal world. Throwing phones or beating up friends in public is not normal behavior. There’s no other conventional excuse for it.

But this is Dixon Steele for you. He’s just a troubled man. Not an archetypal noir antihero. As much as we fear for the people in his stead, there’s also a mild pity reserved for him. He shows himself capable of love. He simply proves to be very ill-equipped for the endeavor.

The layers go deeper still and more personal as Gloria Grahame’s marriage with director Nicholas Ray was splintering and was finally absolved quietly during filming.

Beyond that, you get the sense, Bogart who financed the picture is playing someone, not unlike himself. Perhaps it’s the closest he ever got. Like the film, he found love in a woman, Lauren Bacall, many years his junior who nevertheless made him very happy. Sure Bogey was a success but it took him a long time to get to the top of the summit. He was a hard-drinker with a notoriously white-hot temper to match. Still, he was a romantic and an idealist in such a way we sympathize with. He’s ardently beloved today as he was in his heyday.

The contents of the story take on an entirely new spectrum of meaning with this personal context. In a Lonely Place wasn’t just an examination of Hollywood and the lives of people who could be real. In a Lonely Place feels far more transparent. It is Hollywood and these are the very people who find themselves caught up in its disillusioning grip.

Loneliness is there’s to have and to hold. They don’t need the prototypical genre conventions of graft and crime — the brand we conveniently label as film noir. There’s really little need for the more darkly cinematic overtones. They have themselves. That’s dismal enough already.

4.5/5 Stars

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

The African Queen (1951)

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And you call yourself a Christian! Do you hear me? Don’t ya? Don’t ya? Huh?¬†What ya being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once and a while, it’s only human nature. ~ Charlie
Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ~ Rose

Sometimes when great talent comes together we see the result and question where it all went wrong. ¬†Sometimes it just works pure and simple. The African Queen is such a picture and it’s true that the¬†greatest films function on multiple levels finding ways to exceed our expectations, enrapturing¬†us with storylines and developments that are a far cry from what we first considered. Far from not disappointing, they join the pantheon of classics we would gladly watch over and over again. That is probably the highest praise you can give a picture and The African Queen is such a film.

It’s christened The African Queen because she is the vessel that Charlie Allnut calls his own and she is the very vehicle for this entire adventure. Emblematic of their own grit, ingenuity, and indestructibility. Because the narrative begins with missionaries and the hint of colonialism as Rosie (Katharine Hepburn) and her Reverend brother look to bring the Gospel to the peoples of the Congo.

But due to the outbreak of World War I, Africa too¬†is thrown into the fray as the Germans look to overrun the countryside and sweep it into their clutches. Rosie’s whole peaceful existence of Sunday services and afternoon tea are brutally disrupted. The village is burned, her brother’s physical and mental well-being suffers, and in the end, she has no recourse but to leave her little slice of home behind.

Ironically, her savior is the uncouth, uneducated Mr. Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a jack of all trades who formerly worked at a mine before it was commandeered by the Germans. He too is an inbetweener in this war, caught on the fringes and simply trying to survive. It’s in these very circumstances that these two diverging personalities are thrown together. And in an act of defiance and pure survival tactics, they do rise above their present circumstances.

Aside from mere plot points, the very fact that the film was shot prominently on location like John Huston’s previous classic Treasure of Siera Madre benefits the film greatly because there’s an authenticity¬†to the entire undertaking that could never be fabricated. You see the waters and the jungles. You’re almost suffocated by the sheer humidity and apprehensiveness of every successive rapid they must ford because this feels like more than a movie. The dividing line between fact and fiction in many ways feels paper thin.

Huston had some wonderful black and white films including The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and Sierra Madre but it seems rather fortuitous that The African Queen was made in color given the pedigree of cinematographer Jack Cardiff on such earlier vibrant classics as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. He brings a certain colorful exoticism to the frames that feels foreign to the eyes and yet still strangely beautiful. It all works so exquisitely.

Likewise, this is not simply a script penned by film critic, author extraordinaire James Agee with direction by Huston and the talents of legendary screen icons like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Yes, those are the separate entities that are joined together in this endeavor but they become far more than the sum of their parts.

Agee’s script which Huston also got partial credit for sings with life because of the two individuals it draws up and the world it dares to place them in.¬†Rosie Sayer is a¬†prim and proper missionary in Africa who nevertheless has a fearless streak brought to life so spiritedly by Hepburn as only she could play it. There’s a wonderful stubbornness that’s undeniable but remove the layers and you have the same giddy passion that crept into some of her earlier screwball performances.¬†Mr. Charlie Allnut, as such, is perhaps the most lovable Humphrey Bogart has ever been. Allnut is content just getting by and surviving and he’s good at it — trying to find little bits of comfort in this world medicating himself when gin and a nice cigar every now and again.

But while he pushes Ms. Sayer’s to be practical and lose some of¬†her stuffier tendencies, she, in turn, prods him to step out and do something worthwhile with his life. And it’s not simply about their romance which begins as a small feud, becomes a friendship, and evolves into a frenzied relationship full of affection. Their romance is being forged as they hang onto the faint objective of driving The African Queen into the ominous German gunboat the Louisa. It feels like a small battleground amidst the chaos of World War I but it all depends on your perspective¬†because for Rosie and Charlie this is really is the very pinnacle of their existence. It involves their very will to survive.

They cling to this purpose and the joy of their adventure is the very fact that they are able to see it to the end, in the name of their country but also for their own vindication. And the telling aspect is that they both have been transformed by their experience. They are not so much forged by fire as the jungles that engulf them and the wildlife, foes, and raging falls that all look to be their undoing. And yet this unlikely pair, these polar opposites, prove to be the most formidable allies you could draw together.

The African Queen also has its own forays into spirituality and although they do not remain front and center for the entire film, there is a certain import to them. In a particularly formative scene, Mr. Allnut calls into question the other’s Christian faith which seems at the very least unfeeling if not hypocritical. But you could say the main conflict of this film is voiced by Charlie. It’s human nature.

Charlie has grown passive towards it while Ms. Sayers affirms that humanity is meant to “rise above” and this statement can be taken spiritually or maybe even with a tinge of imperialism (as man must tame the vast wastelands of his environment and such).

But there could also be¬†a more universal ring in her words, suggesting that humanity must rise above every trial and tribulation whether personal, environmental, or social. Any number of these interpretations have stock. The question to ask is where does that will come from? It seems ludicrous to say it comes from within, closer still to say it comes from others, and maybe there’s still something broader going on in the background. No matter your opinion on such matters, The African Queen is still without question, one of the grandest, most rewarding romantic adventures hewn out of 1950s Hollywood.

5/5 Stars

Casablanca (1942): 75th Anniversary Review

Casablanca,_Trailer_Screenshot.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/5 Stars

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

angelswithdirtyfaces-theatricalposterWhaddya hear, whaddya say ~ Jimmy Cagney as Rocky Sullivan

If he hadn’t been on the stage and screen, it’s easy to get the sense that James Cagney, born and bred on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan could have easily been a gangster. And it’s true that in films like Public Enemy and White Heat he embodied gangsters for ensuing generations solidifying his own legend.

Angles with Dirty Faces features another stellar performance as Rocky Sullivan, but what makes it truly unique are the intertwining worlds of faith and crime that meet and ultimately provide the major conflict in the narrative. It’s at these crosswords — the moral fabric of the film — where things get fascinating and to understand those things it’s necessary to see where Angel with Dirty Faces opens.

Two young hoodlums get caught in the act of snitching from a train car and in the ensuing chase one gets nabbed by the cops while the other slips away from their clutches to live another day. This succinct scene is a fitting reflection of all that happens thereafter. The one fellow will grow up to be the notorious gangster extraordinaire Rocky Sullivan who will be at odds with the authorities from his first moments in juvie to his final days.

Meanwhile, Jerry (Pat O’Brien) becomes a local priest who makes it his life’s work to reform the young men in the community who are more than likely destined for the life of Rocky and his fellow gangsters. Through a certain amount of kindness and quiet strength, he attempts to mold the boys through constructive activities like basketball, choir, and other extracurriculars. However, the bad boys (the real life Dead End Kids ensemble, less actors than personified hellraisers) are not quite swayed by his regimen, more content rough-housing, causing mayhem, and idolizing their rebellious hero the great Rocky Sullivan.

When he finally gets out of his stint in prison, Rocky has some choice words for his crooked lawyer (Humphrey Bogart) who hands over a load of cash to save his neck although he’s not looking to be swindled. But although he continues to have his hand in the local corruption and crime scenes, Rocky still maintains his ties with his old friend while renting a room from the girl he used to rib, the now stunning Laury Martin (Ann Sheridan). Here the core relationship between Rocky and Jerry becomes paramount as Jerry vows to tackle corruption in the city with the help of a local paper, even if his old buddy gets in the way.

So Jerry begins his¬†full-fledged crusade against vice because he sees it as a threat to his parish — made up of the impressionable boys in his stead. But just as crucial is the boy’s idol worship, namely of Rocky. This is Jerry’s final goal to bring their idol tumbling down and it doesn’t involve simply destroying the aura surrounding a gangster — it involves two old friends making one final promise. The crime syndicate is thrown into an uproar as Rocky is wanted for murder, cornered, and finally apprehended. ¬†Oh how the mighty have fallen, although he’s not about to go yellow¬†because that’s the only thing he has left–his own bullish sense of moxie.

Still, Jerry asks him to imbue a different kind of courage (Not the courage or heroics of bravado but the kind that you, me, and God know about). And as the electric chair looms in front of Rocky as an arbiter of justice, you could easily make the claim that this is his modern-day cross with him as the martyr. But this gets into the ultimate dilemma where everything begins to break down. Either Rocky committed his final act out of undying affection for an old friend (and not remorse) or more feebly still he was not repentant at all but was, on the contrary, legitimately groveling in the face of death.

The first time seeing this film I mistakenly mistook Rocky’s actions as heroic in the end because as our protagonist that’s what we like to project onto him but it simply does not line up. The way he’s so belligerent¬†before breaking down as he gets ready to meet his maker. The way the priest looks on with tears in his eyes, newspaper men too awestruck to jot down a single note. I mistook Cagney’s astonishing acting for Rocky’s own showmanship. However, the more astounding conclusion is that Rocky is hardly high and mighty in the end. His rough veneer is equally easy to shatter as his being is brought to the ultimate low, death.

It reflects the moral ambiguity of man that these angels with dirty faces are not in the singular sense but the¬†sum of man in his plurality. We are all prone to evil just as we are all capable of good. But we can hardly save ourselves just as we are not always wholly good or wholly evil. The best we can do is make the way better for other people. If this film is any indication sometimes it’s extremely difficult to parse through the differences between the altruism versus the evil versus just plain cowardice.

Films about friends on diverging paths have continued to exist from Cry of the City to Mystic River but Angels with Dirty Faces is arguably one of the most compelling. Once again, Cagney steals the film with his usual no holds barred approach.  It electrifies the screen like very few others, making Angels with Dirty Faces an undisputed gangster classic and one of his very best.

Furthermore, the often discounted Michael Curtiz shows his versatility with the foremost of Warner Bros. winning craftsmen including directors William A. Wellman and Raoul Walsh. Notably, each man paired with Cagney with great results, because, after all, he is without question the king of the gangsters.

4.5/5 Stars