Review: To Catch a Thief (1955)

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There’s little doubt that To Catch a Thief is Hitchcock at his breeziest and with the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly the picture could coast on looks and charm alone. Not simply based on the attributes of its stars either but the extensive on location shooting boasting Cannes shorelines colored in VistaVision and sumptuous flyovers of the winding Riviera, villas and all. It’s a scintillating getaway and a fine departure following the nerve-wracking confinement of pictures like Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954).

Thankfully while it is supremely light entertainment there’s something else to it as well. A rash of copycat crimes has taken place all across the Riviera leading the local police commissioner to suspect reformed cat burglar and French Resistance hero John Robie (Grant). Though the slinking and perfectly executed jewel heists bear the mark of “The Cat,” he’s the best one to acknowledge his own innocence.

Still, that doesn’t stop the police from questioning him nor his old war comrades working at a French cafe to begrudge him for what they deem as an affront to them. They want nothing to do with him. And so with things as they are, Robie must try to exonerate himself by verifying his innocence. John Williams proves the perfect accomplice as a generally agreeable chap from Lloyd’s of London who has vested interest of his own in catching the real culprit in order to recover his client’s assets.

Their introduction could not be more memorable culminating in a tussle in the flower market in Nice with bouquets flying every which way, the local authorities in hot pursuit. From there Robie floats away from the police soaking in some sunbeams as he devises his plan of action. But already we see the dangers as he must essentially play the thief, casing the joint, getting close to the jewels and their owners but all in the name of personal vindication.

What follows is a fortuitous meeting around that whirling pickpocket — the roulette wheel — where Robie makes a dashing entrance. Actually, make that a purposefully inept showing dropping a chip down a lady’s front. What follows is a fairly haphazard routine as Oregon lumber magnate Conrad Burns trading pleasantries with his newfound acquaintances.

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Jesse Royce Landis knocks her scenes out of the park allowing Grant and the others to laugh along amusedly due to her affinity for bourbon and straightforward speech.  Her daughter Francie (Kelly) tries to maintain her own dignity as an aloof beauty bred on finishing school.

However, she’s more forward than she lets on leading with a wordless smooch in the doorway on her way to bed that begins the chase. What becomes rapidly apparent is the fact that she knows what she wants and doesn’t waste any time pursuing it. First, there’s a jaunt on the beach, then a picnic, and numerous other little romantic getaways perfectly constructed for romancing.

By now the double entendre of the title comes into full relief. On one level Robie is trying to catch someone and Francie is trying to catch him. Charade (1963) would provide a similar dynamic with the woman becoming the huntress out for love. But it’s true that the ravishing gal has a jackpot of admirable qualities which Robie nevertheless tries his best to avoid. Just as he tries relatively unsuccessfully to dodge her flurry of probing questions before finally resigning himself to beer and fried chicken.

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I’m the first to admit I’m the least fashion-conscious person around but there’s little denying the iconic nature of Kelly’s coral top during the picnic scenes with Grant. Again, the outfit realized by renowned costumier Edith Head is only rivaled in my admittedly meager estimation by Audrey Hepburn’s Little Black Dress (conceived by Hubert de Givenchy) in Breakfast Tiffany’s (1961) during her early morning window shopping.

The country road car sequence is a fine summation of the film’s general balancing act of John Michael Haye’s scripting with Hitchcock eye for the visual. It’s broken up by the glib interplay between our stars and yet proves silently comedic with knowing gazes and the dodging of pedestrians and roosters as the police tail close behind Francie’s sporty Sunbeam Alpine.

Though the same scene is underlined with a bit of morbidity as Princess Grace would die in a car crash years later as Princess of Monaco brought on by a sudden stroke which occurred not far from where the film was shot. It’s a tragic moment that left a dark blot the world over.

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But for now, the picture is effervescent only bounded by fireworks with the impetuous blonde intrigued by this man who she easily pinned as “The Cat” despite his constant rebuttals. She wants to be a part of his game too, all the while entrapping him with her divine loveliness.

Now’s as good a time as any to marvel at the character of John Robie who must have been made for Cary Grant precisely. At first, it’s easy to surmise that he’s supposed to be a Frenchman who can barely speak any of his native language. However, that would disregard the randomly assorted tidbits scattered throughout the film. For one, he’s said to be an American on multiple occasions. Except as Francie notes, “you’re like an American character in an English movie.” Robie even notes he once toured Europe with a troupe of acrobats, not unlike a young Archibald Leach.

The picture is also littered with what can only be termed touches of Hitchcock whether tops of umbrellas, policemen playing hacky sack on the job, or cigarettes stubbed out in eggs instead of ashtrays.

But back to the action. The final game of cat and mouse is proposed to trap the clandestine specter who has been absconding with all the jewels. It comes down to a decadent Louis 15th extravaganza frequented by the social elite and costumed policemen milling about amid the guests. Robie is waiting to pounce and takes to the rooftops to have it out once and for all!

We think we’re in for one last perfunctory car chase instead Grant and Kelly receive their final rendezvous at a villa which proves far more thrilling. The plot generally took a backseat to the stars anyways even for a Hitchcock movie. We leave them as they embrace with Francie exclaiming, “Mother will love it here!” and Grant’s quizzical look barely visible past his costar’s shoulder. That’s priceless. How could we have more fun than this?

4/5 Stars

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

SW_-_Empire_Strikes_BackGrowing up, Star Wars was my life. I lived, ate, slept, and dreamt Star Wars. But notably, Empire Strikes Back was always my least favorite film in the original trilogy. In truth, it scared me because it showed a different side to this galaxy. It seemed to be ignoring the unwritten rule that good should and will always prevail over evil.

Now I know better than that. Every great film trilogy needs that moment where it delves into the darkness and scours the depths of despair. it’s in these moments that characters become solidified, pun intended, and we truly begin to care for them on a deeper level.

Because Empire Strikes Back is certainly a film about darkness; that’s part of the reason why I shied away from it growing up. But such evil always seems to reveal the polarities of nature.  To balance out the dark side there must be light. Heroics, sacrifice, and friendship come to the forefront because baseness calls for such a response from our protagonists.

Another reason I was not always a fan of Episode IV was rather shallow, I admit. Planets like Hoth, Dagobah, and even Bespin were just not as thrilling as Tatooine and Endor for some reason. That still holds true to some extent, but now the first issue I touched on takes greater precedent.

It’s in this story where the Rebels are struggling to survive, fleeing Hoth desperately from an Imperial garrison that seems largely regrouped and unfettered by the destruction of the Death Star. All seems bleak and hopeless once more. Things begin with Luke being kidnapped and dragged off to a Wampa lair. He almost gets crushed by an incoming AT-AT as his buddies get fried, and finally, he crashes his X-Wing into a swamp searching for a Jedi Master who is little more than a green muppet. It’s not much of a hero’s journey, or more precisely it’s a journey full of pitfalls and failures.

Meanwhile, sparks are flying between Han and Leia, not because of their chemistry, but their complete lack of any chemistry. He’s a scoundrel and she’s an aloof princess hardly enamored with his show of bravado. After all, he pilots a heap of junk and walks around with a furry walking carpet prone to fits of rage. C3P0 is at best comical every now and again when he’s not overly annoying. R2D2 is a spunky dynamo like always.  These hardly seem like complimentary words, and it’s hardly thoughtful commentary, but it sets the stage for brilliance.

The plot is contrived just as Vader contrives to lead Luke right into his trap. On both accounts, it works to perfection. Bespin becomes the perfect place for some major truth-bombs. The most obvious one pertaining to a certain person’s father. But we also see the evolution of Han and Leia’s relationship. We see the true camaraderie between Han and Chewie, and the real nature of Lando, another scoundrel with a heart of gold, much like his buddy Han. Finally, we find out that Leia has extraordinary powers of her own.

On a purely cinematic level, The Empire Strikes Back introduces us to our first real lightsaber battle we ever got and it never disappoints. True, Vader and Obi-Wan faced off, but that was more symbolic in nature. The bout between Luke and Vader was the next step, necessary for this story to progress. Luke has fallen and failed this time as the power of the dark side is too strong for him, but this is only the beginning. Any great trilogy must enter into the darkness certainly, but there’s also an ending to the story. Completely different than what came before. In this case, the Jedi will return prepared to bring order to the galaxy as it is meant to be.

Thus, I wasn’t completely against The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, because I knew it wasn’t the end of the story. We leave our characters on a hopeful note as they survey the vast galaxy in front of them. It’s far from being redeemed, but it’s also not too far gone. This is a space western for the ages with dramatic storytelling, twists, and turns worthy of one of the great series of our generation. Let’s just take another moment to salute John Williams too. Without him, Star Wars is far less. He makes this world of George Lucas come alive.

5/5 Stars

Review: Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's_List_movieWhat is there to say about Schindler’s List except that it is necessary viewing for its depiction of Shoah, suggesting that, literally, out of the ashes beauty and hope will rise. It would be rather callous to call Steven Spielberg’s film pure entertainment. True, he comes with a pedigree that includes such escapist classics like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. However, Schindler’s List is a far different creature and it is arguably his most significant film. It is so moving on a heart-wrenchingly beautiful level. Because great films are more than entertainment, pure and simple. They are affecting, tapping into some deep well inside of us that causes us to laugh, to cry, and have feelings.

Schindler’s List shows us the horrors of the Holocaust without dumbing them down. We see those getting shot. We see the naked bodies. We see the mass graves and the billowing ashes. It can be hard to watch. Abrasive in its content, but not in its form. The film itself is beautifully cast in black-in-white with the most moving of compositions by John Williams and poignant performances by many. But permeating through all of this is, of course, the tragedy, but with the tragedy comes the hope which is crucial to a story such as this.

Spielberg’s reference point is one man named Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who not only was a war profiteer and womanizer but a member of a Nazi party. He’s not afraid of ingratiating himself with the right people to make a pretty penny off the imminent war because in his mind it’s all good business acumen. And aside from his affiliations, what’s not to like about him? He’s well-groomed, a gentleman, and charismatic. It still would be a far cry to call him a hero, at least not yet.

With his main motive still being money, he makes contact with a Jewish man named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who not only has the bookkeeping abilities he is looking for but also connections to the black market and Jewish investors. So as the ghettos in Poland fill up to the brim, Schindler is quick to capitalize, offering the Jews more practical resources in exchange for their money. They get something, but he’s the big winner. He begins to set up his factory for the production of pots and pans which proves to be a lucrative business, especially with most of the bigwigs on his side. At the same time, he takes on Jewish laborers since they’re cheap, and Stein is able to save them from a fate of a concentration camp or being shot.

Our primary villain, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is ordered to start a new camp and just like that the ghettos are closed and the Jews are forced out. He is a despicable creature and a sadist to the max, exemplified by the many people he shoots from his balcony in the mornings. There’s no provocation for it. He just does it because he can. He is not the type of man you can seemingly deal with normally, and yet being a man with immense charisma, Schindler does just that, all in the name of business.

But Schindler too sees the chaos, destruction, and killing that is going on. He can not try to underplay it now since he has seen it all firsthand. But there is a point in the film where his focus slowly evolves from a desire to make money to actually saving Jews from complete annihilation. The most obvious moment occurs after he sees the little girl in the red coat lying in a wagon, dead. Moments earlier he had seen her scampering through the streets, an innocent beacon of color amidst the chaos. What is the world coming to when a girl such as this can be killed for no apparent reason? It begs for a response from Schindler. He can no longer be a passive observer and so he does take action.

With the aid of the ever faithful Stern, Schindler is able to construct a list of over a 1,000 Jews to save from the concentration camps. As the war is going poorly for the Germans, Goeth is ordered to transfer his prisoners to Auschwitz, and although Schindler almost loses all his workers, he is able to save them by literally buying all their lives from Goeth. He spends his entire fortune to save them as well as ensuring that his armament plant does not actually make any working shells. It’s bad business, but it is all in the name of one of the greatest acts of humanity he could perform.

In one final word to the people, Schindler protects his Jews one last time, daring the Nazis working at his factory to kill them or go home to their families as men. They silently choose the latter, and he flees the camp as a war profiteer.  He breaks down looking at the few possessions he has left suggesting that more Jews could have been saved with them, but the Jews in front of him, represented by Stern, point out the great good he did. They bestow upon him a ring with the inscription: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

He is gone now and the story of Schindler’s Jews is not yet complete, because they do not know where to go, but they head out with purpose making their way towards the future. And it is in this moment that their story stops being a memory and breaks on into the present. It is a wonderfully powerful device from Spielberg that evokes an overwhelming flood of emotion. In a line of solidarity, the Schindler Jews walk forward toward the grave of Oskar Schindler. Nothing can quite explain the feelings pulsing through the body as we watch actors and their real-life counterparts laying stones on the grave of this man, much like the Israelites laying stones down in remembrance of what their God did for them.  In one final moment, Schindler’s wife lays one final stone and Liam Neeson lays downs a final rose and we see his imposing but solitary silhouette off in the distance. It’s magnificent, to say the least.

Out of the many scenes that become ingrained in the mind, there were two that especially resonated with me. One of them occurs when the children were trying to evade capture and imminent death. In such a life or death situation they willingly resolved to literally swim in the urine of the outhouse. Another scene that got an immense reaction from me was when all the naked women, with their hair now cut off, are herded into the showers. Both they and the audience think this is the end of their lives so it is almost a cruel trick when water begins flooding from the shower heads. I’m not sure the last time I have felt so much anxiety as an observer. It’s hard to discount.

There are so many great performances big and small, but Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are both superb. We always love a good anti-hero or at least a complex one, and Oskar Schindler fits that bill beautifully. Also, we love the same in our villain, and I must say although I absolutely despised Goeth for all his evil, I must admit that somehow I still felt sorry for him. He was only a cog in the machine, a lonely man who was really so insignificant, in spite of what he wanted to believe. He shoots Jews, beats them, and yet can have such a twisted and somehow intimate relationship with his Jewish maid Helen.

For over 20 years this film has been a beacon of hope and fragment of truth from a period of history that contains so much darkness. Hopefully, it can continue being that touchstone to the past so that there is never the danger that anyone would forget these catastrophic events, but also the heroes like Oskar Schindler who through their actions were able to do a great deal of good.

5/5 Stars

How to Steal a Million (1965)

220px-HowtostealamillionHonestly, the main attraction of this film is its leads in Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole as well as its director, the great William Wyler. Otherwise, this film is a fluffy, silly caper comedy with a touch of drama. It falls somewhere in between a rom-com and an art heist film where everyone in Paris speaks English. Go figure.

Nicole Bonnet’s (Hepburn) father Charles is a master forger of all types of art which he supplements his own vast collection with. Many of his pieces have been sold for a pretty penny at auction, and he has yet to be found out.

He loans out a family heirloom, Cellini’s Venus, to a local Parisian museum for a large exhibition. Meanwhile, Nicole catches someone in the act of burglary and it ends up being a handsome young gentleman (Peter O’Toole).  She is given a fright but ultimately is taken by the man who hardly seems the thieving type. She lets him go without calling the police even giving him a ride home.

Eventually, they cross paths again and she recruits him to help her steal Cellini’s Venus from the museum. She doesn’t tell him why, but she has her reasons and he willingly obliges. It’s all good fun after all.

The caper scenes are no more harrowing than the rest of the film. In fact, it gives the perfect setting for more comedy as the two burglars get locked in a broom closet together after closing time, while also repeatedly setting off the alarm. But it’s all part of the man’s plan, because, after all, he’s a professional. And their plan works. They get away with the statue and the following day the news spreads like wildfire.

In the end, Nicole finds out that Simon Dermott is actually a private eye specializing in art and criminology. He’s no thief and so this was his first heist too. She thinks she’s in for it now, but they’re too in love for that to matter. He explains himself to Mr. Bonnet who reluctantly agrees to end his forgery career on top.

The two lovebirds drive off madcap down the streets of Paris with a beautiful life ahead of them. There’s not much else to say except Hepburn and O’Toole are fun together, while the score of a young John Williams has a recognizable bounciness. Hugh Griffin seems slightly miscast to be Hepburn’s father, and the film is far from pulse-pounding, but these small facts do not negate from its overall charm.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Star Wars (1977)

ccbff-starwars1Star Wars has such a giant mythology and full-blown culture surrounding it that it becomes nearly impossible to separate the entire galaxy from the film franchise. It is so much more than just a movie with a plot and some characters going on an adventure. Sure, George Lucas let his boyhood imagination run wild taking pages out of numerous playbooks from John Ford’s westerns, Kurosawa’s samurai, and the serialized sci-fi adventures of Buck Rogers.

However, when I look at this classic that I grew up with for so many years now, it is nearly impossible to shed the role of a pure fan and take on the role of a film critic. One prime example would be Sir Alec Guinness. All my knowledge of film history tells me he is one of the greatest English actors of all time and for good reason. However, there is also this innate conflict that says he’s Obi Wan Kenobi since that’s what I knew him for originally. That’s what I identify him with, and I probably always will. Because, as I said before, Star Wars: A New Hope (As it was later titled) means so much to so many people like me on a personal level.

But let me hold off on that for a moment and focus on Star Wars the film. First and foremost, you would be hard-pressed to find a more colorful array of characters. C3PO and R2D2 are the films jesters and the story is told from point of view, to begin with. You have the hapless farmboy, the wise old man, a spunky princess, a dashing tough guy, and his ever faithful fuzzy sidekick. Not to mention the greatest, most imposing villain every developed for the silver screen. It took some developing with three different actors, a mask, a cape, and SCUBA sounds all joined to create his persona.

That aside, the world Lucas created is so astounding and inventive that it has become second nature to true Star War fans. Jawas on Tatooine, the Cantina in Mos Eisley, and Storm Troopers on the Death Star are simply a no brainer. They are part of our lexicon just as many of these quotes easily roll off our tongue. “May the force be with you,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” You get the idea.

Then, it goes without saying that John Williams propelled this film from being good to great. Because without his iconic scoring, Star Wars is just not the same. It lacks the same energy and epic vibrancy that pulses through every scene. One prime example is the final scene in the Throne Room on Yavin IV. That could have been the longest most awkward award ceremony in history.  When you think about it, no one is talking, they just stare at each other as the medals get bestowed. But with Williams score, it develops a grand crescendo that caps the film on the highest notes as the credits role.

I am also convinced that Ben Burtt is a genius because he breathed still more life into the Star Wars world through his sound design. He gave us blaster noises, RD-D2’s “voice,” Chewie’s distinctive growls, and of course the hum of lightsabers and Darth Vader’s iconic breathing. A personal favorite of mine is the ever present Wilhelm Scream, but I digress.

Thus, what we witnessed the first time we saw Star Wars (followed by countless more times) was not just a film, but a revolution, and I’m not just talking about the rebel alliance blowing up the Death Star.

As I suggested before, Star Wars is so affecting because it is not simply a movie we watch. In many respects, it brings up flashbulb memories in our lives. I remember birthday parties, childhood afternoons playing Legos, or being a Jedi with my very own lightsaber. Star Wars infected my entire adolescence and so when I watch this film it causes all the many great memories to flood back.

It is a joy to watch it again because I almost feel like a kid once more, experiencing the same excitement all over again as if it’s the first time around. My taste in films may continue to mature and evolve, but I dearly hope I never lose my affinity for Star Wars. In many, it would be like losing some of my memories and even a little bit of my humanity.

Not to worry, though, because based on this most recent viewing I will not be dismissing Star Wars any time soon. As some wise man once  said, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I forgot how much I missed “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” It was great seeing an old friend.

5/5 Stars