Pursued (1947)

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A film like the Searchers (1956) or even The Bravados (1958) frames the western as a tale of vengeance, where a vendetta is carried out from start to finish, only to get twisted up along the way across moral lines. Pursued is a psychological western that takes up the story from the opposite end of the barrel, as its name implies, though the way it goes about it isn’t altogether straightforward. Such stories very rarely are.

Jeb (Robert Mitchum) is hiding out in a cave as his love Thor (played by Teresa Wright) rides to him. We don’t know their history, why he is there, or who is coming after him. All we know through obvious inference is that all these things must be true.

It’s screenwriter Niven Busch’s ploy to draw us into our story and then he fades into a flashback that carries most of the picture’s weight. As many stories channeling Freudian theories must begin, this one is conceived in childhood.

A young boy remembers glimpses of a horrible event. Bullets flying. A body of a woman crawling towards him as he hides under a bed. And this woman (Judith Anderson) would become his adopted mother as her two own kids become rather like his siblings. Thor and Jeb get on well enough but from their boyhood, there has always been an unresolved conflict between Jeb and Adam. The animosity stems from the fact Adam will always see the other as not a true part of his family and Jeb lives with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, understandable or not.

For the sake of their mother and their sister, they begrudgingly tolerate each other and that’s the extent of it. When the Spanish-American War erupts one of them must go and so they decide it in the most arbitrary way possible. With a coin flip. Jeb loses and goes off to be a war hero.

When the family finally reunites and gathers around to sing “Danny Boy” to the tune of Londonderry Aire, there is a sensitivity we feel unaccustomed to, since the rest of the story is brusque and distant nearly scene after scene.

While in its opening moments it began as a story of hospitality and family, Pursued really starts falling apart and allows its core themes to exert their full presence. It’s in these moments where we begin to see hints of a story playing out not unlike a crazed version of the prodigal son.

On another coin flip, Jeb loses out on his piece of the ranch and after having it out with Adam turns to his buddy (Alan Hale Sr.) at a gambling house. He is brought on as part of the operation. Meanwhile, the jealous older brother character begrudges the fact his mother will give Jeb an equal inheritance so he is looking to avenge this personal affront. It doesn’t end peaceably.

At his ensuing trial, Jeb’s life is on the line but even though he gets away scot-free, his relations with his surrogate family will never be the same. And it’s only made worse with every subsequent moment including a town dance where Thor’s latest beau (Harry Carey Jr.) is egged on to confront Jeb.

Dean Jagger makes a nuisance of himself hanging over the entire picture menacingly, but it does feel like his talents are generally wasted. Because when everyone else is gone, the most traumatized parties are Mitchum, Wright, and Anderson.

However, this noir western is a genre-bender blessed by the beautiful black and white imagery of James Wong Howe matched with the direction of that old Warner Bros. vet Raoul Walsh. Whether it’s the distant silhouette of Robert Mitchum illuminated in the doorway at night or the sheer magnitude of the cliffs and crags as they frame insignificant riders galloping by on their horses, the images are undeniably evocative.

There’s nothing all that surprising or thematically interesting about the film’s content initially. Still, this is not a full denunciation of the picture outright. Because the way it plays out does become marginally more intriguing as Mitchum comes under attack and finds himself becoming more abhorred by the minute.

I must admit it’s hard to buy sweet, innocent Teresa Wright could be vindictive at all. However, what the two stars breed is the most detached married life known to man. It’s a tribute to both of them. But they can’t stay that way forever.

What does remain is the fact Mitchum has been hounded his whole life by some unnameable specter hanging over him, and the picture has been hemming and hawing for a final showdown all along. It finally comes, though the ones who take a stand are not who we might expect.

The psychology puzzle of it all is up for debate — how memories come flooding back at just the right moment or how people can love someone and them turn around and hate them and then love them again almost on a dime.

But this does not completely neutralize Pursued which still deserves a reputation as a brooding and atmospheric take on the West. It’s not as mentally stimulating as might have been warranted but with the cast of Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, even ill-fit as they may seem, this oater still comes as a fairly easy recommendation.

3.5/5 Stars

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

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The opening shots of The Strawberry Blonde are not unlike Easter gatherings at my family’s house. Croquet in the backyard…well, that’s about it. But that’s precisely the distinction that’s being made as Raoul Walsh develops a dichotomy between two societies on either side of a brick wall.

On one side the Yale college boys play guitar as their gals all gussied up sing “Meet Me in St. Louis” after a rousing game of croquet. They are eye-catching and the frivolously well-off members of the elite. We think of them and their gayly prim and proper ways when we conjure up archetypal mental pictures of the so-called “Naughty Nineties.”

On the other end, two working men play a good old-fashioned game of horseshoes. They’re a different type of folk. A Greek barber (George Tobias hidden behind an accent and a mustache) and our pugnacious protagonist Biff Grimes. It’s not a typical Cagney picture but it’s still a typical hard-nosed Cagney and that’s the joy of it.

To use his vernacular, he’s a real hairpin. The kind of guy who never takes nothin’ from nobody but has made a habit of getting stepped on his entire life. Whether it’s the girls he’s missed out on or the fights he’s lost or any number of other footfalls. A 5-year stint in prison springs to mind.

Still, he can’t believe he missed out on the flirtatious, bodacious strawberry blonde Virginia Bush (Rita Hayworth), what seems like so many years ago now. But as was his habit, Biff’s friendly rival Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) ended up the lucky man.

Following their fateful first encounter, Biff gets continually saddled with Amy Lind (Olivia De Havilland) which obviously would be far from a disappointment with any sensible man. That doesn’t stop Biff from being sore. He needs a house call to get it through his thick skull that he really has a life to be grateful for.

This is the Epstein Brothers’ glorious revamping of a failed Gary Cooper vehicle from 1933, in this case, made to tailor fit James Cagney. The actor returned to his old studio, Warner Bros., looking for a change of pace to get him as far away from gangster fare as possible. Likewise, director Raoul Walsh was looking for a change after the riveting but tragic drama High Sierra (1941).

Given the results, it’s little surprise that the director considered it one of his personal favorites among the many pictures he helmed over the years. The quality cast starts with Cagney but we really have four superb talents at its core rounded out by Olivia De Havilland, a vivacious Rita Hayworth, and that old happy-go-lucky jokester Jack Carson. Alan Hale fills in as Cagney’s derelict father who’s always finding himself getting thrown out of the local saloon by the ear.

By now I all but take James Wong Howe’s photography for granted but as per usual, The Strawberry Blonde looks two-tone drop dead gorgeous as it lights a world with nostalgic hues of turn-of-the-century New York. Whether moonlight, streetlights, or candlelight, it is a film that is totally evocative of a bygone era.

Where men removed their coats to partake in fisticuffs. The same men humored their best girls with Sunday walks in the afternoon while local bands paraded through the park their brassy tunes wafting through the air. The barbershop subculture was in full bloom, quartets and all. Likewise, modernity was coming into its own with nitrous oxide, horseless carriages, electric lights, women’s suffrage, and the art of spaghetti imported from Italy.

In some paradoxical way while being nostalgic it still finds a way to feel surprisingly progressive particularly through the character of Olivia De Havilland with all her so-called improprieties. A nurse who winks, smokes, and whose mother was a bloomer girl and her aunt was an actress. At least on the surface. Maybe she’s not quite like that.

Meanwhile, Biff is always trying to save face his entire life and as a married man, he’s trying to save face with his concerned wife. He lives with discontentedness instead of satisfaction but just as the times keep on changing, Biff does too, realizing how lucky he is.

What makes the film itself a charming change of pace is the fact that it’s not concerned so much with one singular defining moment of drama but an entire life and it elicits a connection with a time and place even as we feel a sense of pity for Biff. It’s not a bleak film, more of a wistful one, and with wistfulness, a lighter more nostalgic tone can still be evoked.

Even to the end when Cagney takes on the masses it’s great sporting fun and he gets in his licks like any of his gangster pictures but he does it with a loving wife and a life to be wholly satiated by.

4/5 Stars

“Don’t be a hypocrite Virginia. Spiritually you winked.” ~ Olivia De Havilland as Amy Lind

Kings Row (1942)

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Kings Row is apparently a good place to live. The billboard in town says as much. It’s the goings-on in the community that tells a different story — providing a conflicting more subversive view of small-town America.

The story starts out with 5 children. It feels like we hardly get to know them before they are already grown. For some, it feels like we hardly get to know them, period. Robert Cummings is Parris, a fresh-faced polite young man who still exudes a naive innocence and he manages it at 31 years of age. He certainly doesn’t look it.

Those qualities are precisely what is called for in Kings Row, a film directed by Sam Wood (The Devil and Miss Jones) that feels like an enigma — a sprawling coming-of-age drama that dares to show the dark underbelly of society in a very patriotic time.

Despite being hampered by the Hays Codes and its gatekeeper Joseph Breen, Casey Robinson’s script is still a fairly adequate adaption. It comes off surprisingly frank for a mainstream success during the war years even if it can’t quite cover all the vast territory the book undoubtedly expounded upon. But it was a notable forerunner of such pictures as Peyton Place (1957) or even Blue Velvet (1986) years later. It does not shy away from cancer, death, suicide, psychological duress, and all sorts of malice.

Cummings is joined by Ronald Reagan playing his best buddy Drake McHugh, an affable straight shooter with that winning Reagan charisma. Reagan and Ann Sheridan prove to be a great delight with undeniable chemistry if not for the fact that they don’t actually share a scene until well into the picture. In normal circumstances, you would say they’d make a happy couple.

Meanwhile, Cassandra Towers (Betty Field) and Lousie Gordon (Nancy Coleman) seem at the fringes of the narrative if not all but forgotten. Cassandra was formerly Parrises sweetheart when they were kids. But her family is ostracized in town because her unseen mother has mental problems and her father (Claude Rains) pulls his daughter out of school. Parris doesn’t get to see her until years later when he’s under the doctor’s tutelage. He learns to admire the man but that doesn’t make the family dynamic any less disconcerting.

Likewise, before setting his sights on Randy Monaghan (Sheridan) from the other side of the railroad tracks, Drake had his eye on Louise but her parents, Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) and his wife (Judith Anderson), were vehemently against such a union. They believe Drake to be unscrupulous, fearing what others will say about his nighttime buggy rides.

Not to be outdone, Drake gets over his first love and moves on with his life. It’s one of the most satisfying parts of the picture. He seems genuinely content. Though he is miles away in Vienna, Parris is continuing his aspirations of becoming the first psychiatrist in his hometown.

But Kings Row remains a coiled spring of melodrama quickly catapulting from romance to drama back to passion then darkness and romance again. Drake’s life back home turns morosely tragic giving rise to the line that would define Reagan’s career, “Where’s the rest of me!”

James Wong Howes’ photography is A-grade as per usual. The shades of melodrama are his to dictate and he does it exquisitely suggesting tonalities with every composition. The well-remembered score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold has an undisputed majesty which seems to be echoed in some of John Williams most resplendent works from Superman to Star Wars.

There is so much that goes as unspoken subtext in the movie, simultaneously helping and hindering the final outcome. Easily forgotten are the troubling parent-daughter relationships with brokenness at the seams. Claude Rains appears in a very severe role as Dr. Towers who seems like a good man but in the same breath, he still has some lifelong demons he cannot contend with.

Charles Coburn is positively acerbic, channeling every bit of malevolence he can muster. It’s another small but markedly different role than his usual cantankerous or avuncular comics. The trifecta of supporting talent is rounded out by Judith Anderson who only has a couple scenes but they paint a picture of yet another strained mother-daughter dynamic. These issues provide an alternative unnerving layer to the drama but there are so many other subjects to be broached so these feel muddled.

Kings Row barrels towards a lightning fast conclusion that looks to resolve the film’s entire length in a matter of a few moments and that proves to be a heady proposition. An almost unnaturally joyous ending cannot quite tie up all the loose ends and the questions we may still have as outsiders trying to come to grips with this world. But there is one that does become evident and one thread of morality that shows itself.

Humanity was not made to live paralyzed by gossip, hearsay, and secrets that can never be completely rectified. Instead, what we can do is bring all that is in the darkness into the light and do our best to hold on dearly to our relationships.

Because strains of hypocrisy, sickness, and pernicious intent will look to undermine our happiness until the end of time. One of the keys is striving for a life that takes the hardship and comes out of it with a continued zeal for life. Battling all that is depressed and despondent with a spirit of pure integrity.

So while there’s still something unspeakably unsatisfying about Kings Row that’s not to take away from its positive outcomes. Just seeing a smile cross Ronald Reagan’s face once more almost feels like it’s enough. I still remember going to the Reagan Library and watching some clips from Kings Row, a film he likened to his best work. Now many years later I can finally say I’ve seen it for myself.

3.5/5 Stars

Picnic (1955)

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_PicnicIt’s easy to assume that Picnic is a film that time had not been very kind to. If you do a cursory glance at contemporary reviews, the majority appear far from glowing and my own reason for returning to this romance was based on a mild interest in a cultural artifact rather than an actual investment in the film itself.

As such it’s also easy to label Picnic as a contrived melodrama ripe with implausibilities and theatrical notes. One of those hot and sweaty numbers out the Tenessee Williams school of drama. This couldn’t possibly be real life. Even the romance feels a bit thin as if falling in love with someone through a simple dance could actually happen over the course of a single day. Yes, William Holden plays the energizer bunny inside the body of a has-been jock impressively but he’s a bit old for the part. Yes, Kim Novak is an aloof beauty extraordinaire but she still somehow feels out of place as a Kansas beauty queen. Rosalind Russell is and always will be a dynamo.

It’s Labor Day weekend in rural Kansas when drifter Hal Carter (Holden) stumbles off a train to call upon an old college chum named Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) for a job. Upon his arrival, he offers to get rid of a lady’s trash in exchange for a meal.

Due to the summer heat, it seems reasonable enough that the kindly old woman (Verna Felton) tells him to strip down to the waist but a shirtless William Holden makes a stir in town from the very first ogle. Of course, it works both ways. Madge (Novak) is the local beauty and her endlessly concerned mother wants her eldest daughter to use her looks to get a nice young man like Alan.

That’s one of the prevailing notions of the times. Women must get married. They must find a nice man with means and do it while they’re young and time is still in their favor. Better yet if they’re desirable.

The alternative is winding up like Millie (Susan Strasberg), Madge’s younger sister, who keeps her nose in books, having already landed a scholarship to college while disdaining boys and avoiding them like the plague. Further still, there’s the fate of winding up like the local school teacher, the histrionic Rosemarie (Russell) who boards with the Owens and yearns for a dream man to replace the scruffy but nevertheless good-natured Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), who frequently calls on her. Consequently,  Ms. Potts is one of the most agreeable characters and seems the most fulfilled (even without a husband).

However, the arrival of Hal draws out such a visible reaction from all the other women he meets and it feels severe but more than anything you can see it as wholly representative of the sexual repression of the age. It’s so jarring since in some respects the magnetism of Carter feels relatively tame and the outcry against him uncalled for but that comes out of our own sex-saturated culture.

Upon ruminating on the movie a bit longer I began to consider what it truly means when we label a film to be “dated.” We look at scenes in Picnic and are quick to write them off as an indication of the time. Maybe it’s a bit of the historian coming out in me but isn’t that part of the magic of a film like this? It can act as a time capsule. It can come to us from the era it was made in. What’s wrong with that?

As usual James Wong Howe’s color photography does an impeccable job of giving us a sense of what that life was like as does the direction of Joshua Logan since the stage version of Picnic had been his baby. They interpret the quality times that communities have together with bands, songs, games, and the best kind of food made by the most loving hands.

People called on one another, courted, were generally courteous, and there was a sense of integrity. Yes, people were often frustrated and uncomfortable but we could say the same about today too, except now the same feelings come for different reasons. Neither a culture of asceticism nor utter hedonism will find us completely content.

In the end, I stole a page out of the Astaire & Rogers musicals to try and comprehend Picnic. Unquestionably the “Moonglow” sequence is beloved and I think we can look at it utilizing a certain lens. In an age that was supposedly “repressed” a dance was a highly evocative way to express the passion of two people and like many of the most guttural cinematic sequences, this one is visually impactful with nary a line of dialogue allowing us to be captured fully in the moment.

Howe’s final stroke of ingenuity is to show our two lovers simultaneously riding off by train and bus to their life together, within the same frame. Whether they can make it work and be happy is still in question. But part of the beauty of this existence is that we each have to make our own path in the pursuit of love and everything else that’s worth living for. To use an unforgivable metaphor, life isn’t always a picnic but the dance of life will continue regardless.

3.5/5 Stars

MY ENTRY IN THE 3RD GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON!

The Thin Man (1934)

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“What were you doing on the night of October fifth, nineteen-hundred-and-two?” ~ William Powell as Nick Charles

“I was just a gleam in my father’s eye.” ~ Myrna Loy as Nora Charles

With The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammet successfully crafted several archetypes that go beyond the basic pulpy film noir standards that he also helped to define. Nick and Nora Charles were a cinematic power couple even before the word was in vogue and as their real life counterparts, William Powell and Myrna Loy were quite the pair in their own right being matched in a mind-boggling 14 films together.

The Thin Man became one of the most beloved pairings, helmed by W.S. Van Dyke and spawning a wildly popular series of sequels that continued throughout the 30s and 40s. At the very least it suggested that it was not so much the story lines but more so the characters that resonated with the general public.

It’s true that casting William Powell as Nick Charles was one of the hand in glove situations. He had a certain dashing even debonair quality with his pencil mustache perfectly thrown askew by the scenarios he gets himself into. Above all, he has a witticism or lithe quip handy for any given situation. He’s a real riot at dinner parties. One of those men who has a perpetual smirk on his face.

But Myrna Loy is just as impeccably cast as his fun-loving wife who is as game as he is to have a rip-roaring good time. She’s constantly keeping up with his droll wit while continually chiding him good-naturedly to get back into the amateur detective game.

For the time, with no children to speak of, their beloved wire terrier Asta (the famed Skippy who was also featured in other such classics as The Awful Truth and Bringing up Baby) rounds out their happy clan.

It really is a strategic depiction of marriage and family circa 1934. The Great Depression still had a fresh imprint on the nation and yet in Nick and Nora you see no indication of any such malaise.  Their days are spent drinking martinis and gallivanting around town while their nights are filled with fancy dinner parties and the occasional crime caper.

These forms have been so often parodied to this day but at the time it seems obvious that The Thin Man whether subconsciously or not was an escapist fantasy that indulged the desires of those less fortunate. Because if nothing else, they could at least spend some fun taking a load off and joining the Charles for an enjoyable evening. Everyone laughs. Cops and citizens have close knit connections. Excessive drinking is only a delightful diversion. The only ones who were in need were the slothful and the greedy.

Although The Thin Man employs admittedly incomprehensible plotting at times it’s hardly a knock. So many characters get thrown in and chatted about it becomes difficult to keep them all straight much less figure out what their bearing on the plot is. And it is the oddest cross section of individuals to be sure.

Much like The Third Man, this precursor, The Thin Man acts as a nifty MacGuffin in a pinch, driving the plot forward with his spectral presence. The fact he’s hardly on screen does not detract from his overall importance in this film. Meanwhile, his invested daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan), wife, mistress, and various other involved parties all get tossed around as culprits and accomplices including Porter Hall and Cesar Romero.

While not noir in the typical sense James Wong Howe’s photography does give the film certain dark sensibilities at times to contrast with the plethora of more comic moments in drawing rooms and the like. It also shares in the tradition of Agatha Christie and other such detective fiction narratives with bits of amateur sleuthing and all the subjects rounded up for a dinner party so the culprit might be revealed.

But what The Thin Man truly explored was the capabilities of crime when paired with comedy. In some sense here is a film where you have certain screwball aspects but I hesitate to call this film a true screwball just as I hesitate to call this a gangster picture though there are cops and thugs.

It’s that immaculate blending of comedy and crime that makes The Thin Man go down like a perfectly mixed martini. It was the charisma of Powell and Loy that allowed the series to exist well beyond the parameters of a one hit wonder.

4.5/5 Stars

The Thin Man (1934)

c6713-poster_-_thin_man_the_02Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and adapted from a Dashiel Hammet novel, this comedy-mystery follows a former detective and his rich, loving wife. At first Nick Charles is reluctant to go on a case that revolves around a thin man who he knew and who has disappeared. The police believe he is the culprit behind the three subsequent murders. Other mysterious events and the many suspects, leave both the police and audience unsure. After the constant begging of Nora, Nick follows a hunch and joins the case. He seemingly makes a break through and he and Nora hold a dinner with all the suspects. There the truth is discovered and the culprit is found. This is like a screwball comedy that is further complicated by the mystery. Powell and Loy play off each other very well and the supporting cast is good.

4.5/5 Stars

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – Film-Noir

Starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, this film has memorable dialogue and chilling performances. Curtis is Sydney Falco, a greedy and conniving press agent who is constantly trying to get on the good side of influential people. His main target is the renowned if not ruthless gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster). Falco bargains for publicity he desperately needs in exchange fro breaking up the romance of Hunsecker’s kid sister. The plan seems to work just as Falco foresaw, however a heated confrontation leads to Hunsecker seeking revenge on his sister’s boyfriend. Ruthlessly he has the man framed with the help of a reluctant Falco. Finally, Falco has had enough but Hunsecker turns on him too in order to protect his image and his sister. As the film closes, Hunsecker’s almost suicidal sister leaves to go back to her boyfriend and he is all alone. Lancaster and Curtis both give performances that brim with corruption and sleaze. The score and the New York atmosphere also help to bring the film alive.

4.5/5 Stars