Suddenly, Last Summer (1959): A Venus Flytrap of a Film

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For some Suddenly, Last Summer plays like the Holy Grail of Classic Hollywood cult films. It’s a bit like seeing those old Warner Bros. Studio clips of famed actors muffing their lines and then proceeding to blurt out obscenities. It breaks all illusions for those who have a certain perception of what these old movies represent, whether it’s something twee or a sort of refreshing simplicity.

Somewhere between Tennesse Williams and Gore Vidal, we find the origins of something with the carnal instinct of a venus flytrap. Fitting, as the curious plants become one of the film’s earliest portents. One Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) keeps them well-fed in her arboretum. Really, the space — like an overgrown Eden in her backyard — is in memoriam to her dearly beloved son Sebastian.

He’s never seen in the flesh, but he haunts this picture like a male equivalent to Mrs. Rebecca De Winter. The memory of him is kept alive by those closest to him almost to the point of obsession.

But to understand this we must start earlier. At Lion’s View State Asylum in 1937, a brain surgeon (Montgomery Clift) has made strides in lobotomy to provide relief to schizophrenic patients. It’s a primitive solution and his facilities are subpar at best. As a state institution, they lack the funds to take care of their growing population of patients.

Their savior might just come in the form of the same Mrs. Venable who is looking for some aid for her niece (Elizabeth Taylor), a young woman who has recently been interned at St. Mary’s hospitable. She’s purportedly prone to obscene outbursts and other unseemly behavior.

The way it’s described, she might as well be as mad as a hatter. Meanwhile, the way the lady talks about her departed son to the good doctor you would think the former poet was almost like a god. She sees both men’s art — that of surgeon and poet — as supremely powerful and grandly creative. What’s more, there’s no pretense. She’s absolutely infatuated with the memory of her dead son.

She’s further obsessed with everything she witnessed on her travels with Sebastian the year before: particularly birds devouring baby sea turtles. Nature is not known for its compassion, and we are all trapped in a devouring creation. In this world, the face of God is not a supreme being but a horrible inescapable truth. If anything, God is made in our own image and it’s a terrifying reflection.

Elizabeth Taylor finally makes her entrance, and she’s as alluring as ever. She’s hardly the world’s idea of an unhinged ward patient, done up as she is in her typical Hollywood glamor, with a slight redux free of charge.

As she meets Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) and becomes accustomed to his calming presence, there’s an uneasy trust being formed. But if anything, it might as well play off the close friendship of Liz and Monty offscreen. He doesn’t do much — at least in a histrionic sense — and she commands most of the scenes, still, it only works if they are together. For all the struggles Clift endured after his career-altering injury, in tandem with the likes of Hepburn and Taylor, he works quite well.

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Of course, there is no real pretense to believe this story is really concerned in any regard with mental health. Catherine goes wandering around the facility only to terrorize herself. If she’s not “mad,” it might all be subjective anyway. At any rate, it feels like a high-profile precursor to Shock Corridor.

However, in that film, the shock befits the low-profile punchiness of Sam Fuller more than Mankiewicz and his A-list cast. Here it feels more than a little dimorphic, bearing two forms that don’t fit together. To be sure, Suddenly, Last Summer transcends mediocrity altogether. It’s arguably something far better or something far worse than it seems.

These long, drawn-out scenes loaded to the gills with theatrical dialogue meet their piece de resistance as Taylor goes off — divulging all the secrets she’s been holding onto. However, if any of this gives off the putrid stench of convention, rest assured the finale is as striking as it is genuinely perturbing.

It paints in oblique language, clouded images, and the drone of Taylor’s own voice as we watch her terrorized face recount the horrors she witnessed. Suddenly, Last Summer reaches the summit with clanging drums and music, cobblestone streets, and streams of lecherous feet chasing after their prize. Here again the overgrown gardens, venus fly traps, and flesh-eating birds have renewed significance.

It takes her to the brink — a cinematic equivalent to visual insanity — and the precipice of reality, leaving her all but ready to jump off. Whether it’s totally effective or not, above all, it leaves a polarizing impression. Thus, the most surprising reaction to the picture would be one of total indifference.

What sets it apart from its brethren and even other Tennessee Williams pictures is how it’s able to lay into its themes even more overtly, almost on the encouragement of The Production Codes. Because it’s preaching a message of the twisted roads humanity can take, paths that ultimately lead to destruction. And yet with all those involved, there is this subversive sense of something else — something more, its screenplay’s skin is crawling with all sorts of undercurrents.

In what universe do Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift star in a picture helmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz culminating in cannibalism and interwoven with any number of delectably salacious taboos? It happens here. And yet more perverse still is how God or hope or meaning, in any form, is absent. From a worldview perspective, there is no such thing as Truth (or is it truth serum?). Take your poison.

Either is fitfully terrifying until it gives way to a meaningless apathy. No wonder the asylums are so full of patients. It might be the safest place to be in a world such as this. Our initial fear is poor Elizabeth Taylor receiving a lobotomy. Rest assured we get something far worse: a senseless, devouring world. It’s poised and ready to eat us all up.

2.5/5 Stars

The Barefoot Contessa (1954): A Cinderella Story

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While it shares elements with the earlier Pandora and The Flying Dutchman in both its techniques and the mystique projected around Ava Gardner, The Barefoot Contessa ultimately evolves and settles into the narrative rhythms one might expect from its creative partners.

Jack Cardiff returns to give Ava Gardner phenomenal lighting and color — flattering her complexion — beams bursting with radiance and vibrant pigmentation. The extraordinary tones of the cinematography are married with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s penchant for substantial but well-wrought dialogue and a kind of suave dinner repartee dating back to the days of All About Eve. Likewise, the spine of the story is derived from a very conspicuous novelistic device — starting at the end to illuminate the beginning.

Because someone has died. There is a funeral in the gloom of a rainy day in Spain. Although rain falls mainly on the plain, that is no concern of ours. Instead, we meet the onlookers from many walks of life, all sheltered (for the most part) under their respective umbrellas.

Humphrey Bogart is Harry Dawes a veteran movie director and screenwriter halfway around the world from Hollywood & Vine, attending the funeral of one of the industry’s incandescent starlets who burned out far too quickly.

As is commonplace with many of these self-reflexive industry portraits popular specifically during the 1950s, you begin to suspect where stories gleaned their inspirations by weaving fact and fiction together into a new amalgam of the Hollywood dream factory.

This tale of a nightclub singer in Madrid rising to the heights of Hollywood is hardly a far cry from other real-life origin stories. Rita Hayworth was reborn as a screen goddess and eventually married a prince. Lana Turner was discovered at a drug store counter or the likes of Linda Darnell and Ava Gardner herself had Hollywood contracts thrust upon them at such an early age. In other words, this wasn’t just another wishful Hollywood story. There are obvious antecedents floating around the industry.

The world is instantly placeable. Flamenco guitar. The unmistakable Enzo Staiola from the Bicycle Thief as a busboy (in Spain no less). What sets Maria Vargas apart is her startling frankness, hardly enamored with the movie industry.

She makes a startling first impression as much for what she won’t do as for what she does. Because she’s a very hard girl to see — not easily swayed by Hollywood glitz — and terribly grounded when it comes to what she wants for her career.

The wheeling-dealing P.R. man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) talks up what she has to look forward to, continually dabbing his forehead with his hanky from his exuberant bouts of hyperventilation. Meanwhile, the tense and controlling financier, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), sits by expecting everyone to cave to his will.

He’s no Hollywood wunderkind, but he has money to finance the industry’s next big hit. His money speaks and so Dawes and Muldoon follow his lead. He makes the world turn. Maria Vargas knows no such convention. She is the master and perfecter of her own destiny.

Harry’s the first person she feels akin to; he’s a real person without throwing around the pretense of his purported fame. Meanwhile, she’s not completely ignorant of the movie industry, throwing around the names of Lombard and Harlow, Lubitsch, Van Dyke, and La Cava from the golden days.

Even as the lovely dancer sets her sites on Hollywood, she carves out an individual path. She began as an untouchable with no interest in the enticements of men or romance promised by the industry around her.

Because she knows who she is and her grounded roots are signified by her affinity for having her feet in the dirt. You can’t easily change someone to the core of their being. Though she’s not Spanish nor does she exude the qualities of a girl from humble means (looks can be deceiving), Garnder makes the most of it.

There are men jockeying for her affections (or at least ownership of her career) among them Kirk and a frivolous Latin American gigolo, Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring). He is little better, enslaved by his own excesses be it gambling or drink. The man who admires her from a distance and subsequently takes her away from the place is Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), the closest thing to a decent man she’s ever had in her life thus far.

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Harry remains a steadfast friend and a protector of Maria when the world seems full of ravenous wolves and superficial opportunists. He knows Maria better than most; she owns an acute Cinderella complex, looking for her Prince Charming, even if the glass slippers were never meant for her. The Count seems to be the man. Alas, in life midnight often strikes and there’s no way to reclaim the time. Her fairy tale ends in tragedy.

No fault of her own, I never felt the weight or magnitude of Maria and the loss of her life. The way the story continually circles “the round” of funeral guests somehow hinders us even though the myriad of perspectives are meant to help us comprehend her better.

I found myself wanting more Bogart or at least more O’Brien, who gives an impeccable showbiz send-up, but when topics turned to the other men in Maria’s life, the story grows turgid and uninteresting — partially alienating the audience. They were never established in the same way nor do I have the kind of instant rapport with Goring or Brazzi that I instantly feel for Bogart.

Most regrettably, Gardner’s performance is never truly allowed to cast a spell of enchantment aside from a few intermittent scenes. Yes, once again, she’s remarkably beautiful and Jack Cardiff’s camera does wonders to ignite her God-given features in an extraordinary light. When she dances with gypsies or wanders through grand estates in luxuriant gowns, she has powers to entrance the audience.

However, her actual performance — going beyond her casting as a Spaniard — never seems to play to her true strengths. If I may be so bold, I never consider her much of an actress, but she’s at her most sublime playing shades of who she really was or at least what her reputation made her out to be.

I look at Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, even in its heightened state of reality, or Mogambo and The Night of The Iguana, and I feel like I know and understand Gardner a bit more intimately in and through her performances. Perhaps this is precisely the point, but in The Barefoot Contessa, we only know her due to the recollections of others.

For me, she is merely another portrait of inevitable rising and falling human tragedy. Unfortunately Hollywood has engendered many of those storylines. She feels more like the postscript to other people’s stories than the definitive protagonist of her own biography.

Because a Barefoot Contessa is such a stirring image, both dissonant and complex, well-worth eulogizing about. Sadly, it never harnesses all its assets, and when the credits roll it feels inconsequential at best and at worst disrespectful.

Such a woman deserved a better remembrance. If nothing else, it’s a sad commentary suggesting a woman’s legacy is made by the men who helped shape her and are consequently the ones who live to tell her story. The Pygmalions might live in regret, but it is their creations who are buried in the dirt. “Che Sara Sara” feels like too pat an answer for this tragic Cinderella story.

But, after all, this is Hollywood we’re talking about where it’s tempting to mold everyone into easily digestible, one-dimensional media icons ready for immediate consumption. For all their glamour and tabloid-worthy headlines, Rita, Lana, Linda, and Ava (as well as any other Hollywood casualty) were human beings too.

3.5/5 Stars

Sleuth (1972): Starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine

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I don’t play games. Many of my long-suffering friends would attest to the fact that this statement is only semi-facetious. Perhaps it must begin with what games are used for. They are recreational, diversions meant to be enjoyable so that two or people might gather together and have a memorable evening.

Except for me, games always have a habit of bringing out the sides of people I never much like. The overly competitive ones who have no sense of the rules; there’s no sportsmanship or any seemingly rational concept of fair play. Either that or they care too much about them — tooth and nail.

The moderately well-adjusted people I seem to know and love, all of a sudden, become animals tapping into their primordial proclivities toward the survival of the fittest.

Another reason I don’t play many games is a reflection on my own poor attitude. I don’t like games much because I’m never very good at them. I’m the victim. The one always losing and getting beaten and putting on a fine face until the next debacle. And why waste my time doing that when I could be doing something far more constructive with my time like say, watching a film…

With this long-winded subtext, I’ve tried to make it apparent why Sleuth might already be rough going for a bad sport like myself. It’s tapping into a world that I already abhor.

Thus, it’s a pure testament to how fine a cast and crew we have to say my opinion of the picture cannot help but be complimentary. Ironically, it readily leans into the issues I have with games to create an engaging conflict.

By the 1970s, Joseph L. Mankiewicz feels like a bit of a bygone relic leftover from the 1950s and some of his finest achievements like All About Eve. It might sound like a harsh observation, but even his greatest film noted the inevitable waning of a once illustrious career.

Thankfully Sleuth is still a credit to his name and how could it not be, bolstered by excellent material by Anthony Shaffer (based on his play) and two certified British treasures in Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier?

They meet in the middle of a maze that reminded me of one summer day on a vacation to Hever Castle. It’s the first in a whole host of games with Michael Caine bemusedly attempting to make his way to the voice emanating from the very center.

Finally, he gets there only when the hidden entrance is revealed to him — the first in a line of wry twists. It’s a portent of the forthcoming recreations.

For a good bit, we don’t what the business at hand is meant to be. Then as they wander through a parlor in the midst of small talk about trinkets and the usual pleasantries, Olivier gets right down to business. The other man wants to marry his wife. Instantly we have the conflict and the basis for our entire film. It doesn’t take much to see why.

You could rarely pay for a better two-man show though there are a few others who drift in and out of the conversations carrying their own importance. Namely, the woman they are both fighting over or the no-nonsense Inspector Doppler (played by Alec Cawthorne) who pays a housecall. Even these characters rely wholly on the mystique created by our leads. (They are indebted to them more than we initially realize).

Obviously, the blocking of scenes is crucial, but it also relies readily on the stars and they oblige, aided by the witty material. The best part about it is the very fact there is this sense of freedom. The house is a centralized space and yet they are given free rein of it, and they’ll readily go tromping around doing just about anything they please. Digging around for old costumes. Ransacking rooms. Blowing up safes.

There’s is very little that feels homey about the antiquated interiors, seemingly possessed by all manner of automatons. At first, it feels like the perfect lair from which Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) will lure his unsuspecting prey into a duel of wits for his wife’s hand.

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They thrust and parry like gentlemen, and Olivier is having a real fine time with the theatricality, vaulting between manic fits of imagination conceived by an authorial mind and then the verbose orator with an affinity for showmanship. It’s all about games and parlor tricks and misdirects, easy enough to get carried away with.

One moment it’s a competition, then a mystery, then a murder. A farce, a set-up, an in-house theater company, a revenge yarn, and another murder. The mechanisms of the plot become less important as it becomes a Columbo episode. How will our culprit, who shall remain nameless, be caught? Except this too is another ploy.

If it’s not apparent already, Sleuth is this maddening game of emotional whiplash as new wrinkles are revealed from start to finish. These revelations are what also keep it quite gripping. Folding over again and again and again as the duo oscillates between cat and mouse, vying for the upper hand. Vaulting into each man’s corner to play the villain and the victim, the mark and the conniving mastermind.

We have such disparate images as Caine running for his life at gunpoint. Then Olivier knee-deep in a coal heap while Caine coolly notes no one of a darker complexion ever manages to make it into Wyke’s fictitious fantasy world. The rival even jeers his finest literary creation, the aptly named  St. John Lord Merridewe.

These are only slight proddings, ploys in a vast web of interconnected stratagems. Of course, this is only a movie so no real people were harmed in the making of this scenario.

The only people who get played are those of us sitting in the dark (both figuratively and literally). One of the greatest joys of the charade is guessing one ploy only to be ambushed by a flurry of new wrinkles.

For it to function, Sleuth must work in a manner of parity, and thankfully Caine is more than up to the challenge. It’s by no means actor and understudy or the opposite even, the old stalwart displaced by the youthful newcomer.

They do feel like partners with equal footing in this game. Here lies the key. So if playing along with Olivier and Caine is the punishment I must resign myself to, I will take it compliantly. There are far worse ways to while away an evening. However, I still don’t play games if I can help it.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Somewhere in the Night (1946): John Hodiak and Amnesia Noir

Somewhere_in_the_Night_-1946-PosterOf the plethora of returning G.I. films and film noirs, this one reflects their fears most overtly and for this very reason, it might be generally the most forgotten today. That and the assembly of a lower-tier cast. Most of these names have been lost to time.

The one name remaining fairly enduring and bright in the annals of cinema is Joseph L. Mankiewicz who while still early in his career, was carving out a name for himself as both a writer and a director, following a stint producing. Somewhere in the Night is an early showcase for his skills.

He brings us an amnesia plot from the POV of a wounded veteran who has no idea about his own past. The soldier’s wartime injuries made sure of that and while he cannot speak, his mind is alive — an opportune moment for Mankiewicz to call on some illuminating voice-over. If anything it tells us how little this man knows and sometimes that is enough.

George Taylor (John Hodiak) finally returns to New York trying to start afresh and piece his life back together. All he has to go on are a few stray belonging from his former life. Everything, from his previous residence at the Martin Hotel, to a letter, and $5,000 deposited in his bank account, seem to lead to someone named Larry Cravat.

For the audience, we’re up for the mystery but in Taylor’s case, his identity hangs in the very balance of this question. He has to know and so he hits the pavements poking around. Henry Morgan can always be counted on in a bit part, gruffly pointing the direction to a local watering hole, The Cellar.

There a reticent Whit Bissell stands behind the bar. His face suggests he has something to say, but there’s hesitance when Taylor starts peppering him with inquiries. The bar has ears and two thugs lurk nearby. Our man doesn’t wait around to get acquainted, fleeing the scene. Instead, he wanders into the first room that happens to be open, a pretty girl’s dressing room (Nancy Guild).

The meet-cute has been sprung upon us out of necessity. Full disclosure, her singing is alright and she fits the good girl persona, but her piano playing leaves something to be desired. One must also question how easily Nancy falls in love with her deceased best friend’s former beau (This is how they connect with one another). Regardless, in watching her affable turn, you wonder why Guild never got a bigger break.

Since a good girl is never found without her foil, by pure ‘chance’ another pretty girl wanders into Taylor. It’s literally the complete inverse of the prior scene except this dame meant to be there. We don’t know why yet. The events keep on stacking one on top of the other until he’s forcibly taken for a rendezvous where he is told to stop poking around.

The story stalls when it gets talky, though it might seem a necessary evil to lend some clarity to the myriad of events. Up to this point, we have no true frame of reference. Mel Phillips (Richard Conte) becomes one anchor, as Christy’s boss who looks ready to help in any way he can. Also, Lloyd Nolan turns up as a steady police detective with an inside scoop. It turns out at the center of this entire web is hot Nazi money priced at $2,000,000. Of course.

We have mysterious messages left on windshields, house calls involving a belligerent Sheldon Leonard, Double Indemnity references, and a very familiar face; along with another ominous character. Another man named Anzelmo checks all the boxes for sleaze with his foreign accent and dubious reputation but he is only a piece in this puzzle. If this is all very oblique it’s meant to be in staying the film’s own tendencies. 

By this point, our plot is either overwhelming or monotonous as Taylor meets a homely woman sharing in a cryptic conversation that proves also deeply sentimental. Again, it is these long-winded moments that are to the story’s detriment. While Larry Cravat remains an important trigger word, one Michael Conroy is also a person of interest.

Somewhere in The Night earns its title outright around this juncture. When a character wanders into a building at the dead of night and goes down a long, low-lit corridor in search of some unnameable thing, we know we have arrived in the heart of film noir territory. There is no doubt. It feels like one of the turning points in The Big Sleep when Marlowe, snooping around, winds up finding a dead body on a carpet. An analogous outcome happens here. 

There’s a meeting of the minds in one final powwow to collectively assemble all the primary players for the long-awaited reveal.  But the final act’s twist is so obvious, it makes all the labyrinthine whirly gig leading up feel somewhat empty. However, it is often said it’s not about the outcomes but the road along the way. Taken in this light, Somewhere in The Night has its moments of genuine intrigue.

It is easy to write off the cast for their relatively forgotten status. Even Lloyd Nolan has high billing (the man most well-known for playing a detective) for a relatively minor part. But I would argue Richard Conte is an unsung hero of film noir, while the picture does give allowance for some intriguing roles in support.

Hodiak is not the ideal to hold a movie together, but he is not in this alone. It also turns out the movies were right. Detectives do always keep their hats on. Just in case they’ve got to shoot someone — it helps keep their hand’s free — makes sense enough.

3./5 Stars

House of Strangers (1949)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz will always hold the prestige of a writer over a director and yet working off a script by Phillip Yordan, he guides the picture with an assured hand. House of Strangers manages to be intermittently stylish and deeply evocative highlighted by fiery performances. Ironically, it begins like a good many of his most well-known works with an extensive flashback.

It stems from a story that has deeply familiar roots in the American experience full of the old vs. new world dichotomy, immigrant lives, love, and hate. The expansive Italian family rendered so memorably in The Godfather films comes to mind most plainly and there’s little doubt House of Strangers sows some of the same seeds cropping up again over 20 years later in Coppola’s classic.

Thematically, it’s about a culture that is extremely family-oriented but also hierarchical. It’s right there in the title. With how he runs his household, Gino Manetti (Edward G. Robinson) has tended a “house of strangers” by picking favorites and alienating his other sons. They are tired of constantly being ridiculed and doing his bidding, while their ambitious brother Max (Richard Conte) gets their father’s full attention, going so far as to herald his upcoming marriage to his sweetheart (Debra Paget). The other Manettis never get such fanfare.

As might be expected within this context, the story relies on powerhouse performances and Robinson is astoundingly effectual as the patriarch. It never really feels as if he’s playing at something (the same cannot be said of Hope Emerson unfortunately) but he takes on the persona of someone who does only what they see fit to do. His mode of thinking and acting is very straightforward. There’s nothing diplomatic about his dealings and that garners him many friends but also plenty of ill feelings.

Joe (Luther Adler), the oldest Minneti brother, is discontent with the way his father takes him for granted, keeping him as a bank teller with little responsibility in the family business. He’s worried about his image with his wife and the neighborhood. Their father’s favoritism only makes it worse.

Then, there’s Pietro (George Valentine) the brawny brother who doesn’t have the greatest brains and so his father keeps him on as a security guard. The boy’s also been moonlighting in the boxing ring but he receives his father’s disdain for having a soft belly. So he’s got his own burning grudge, that and the fact Gino is always making him change the records at family dinners. Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is the pushover and it’s easy for dad to keep him in his place.

In a sequence that could almost be plucked out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the bank is closed down in the throes of The Depression and there are riots in the streets broken up by the police force. But in the aftermath, Gino is put on trial for his loose business practices that more than likely bent numerous federal regulations. He never did care much for them.

If his sons were behind him it would be easy enough to beat the rap but with only Max in his corner, it becomes an increasingly strenuous battle. In the end, the beloved son shields his father but ends up being disbarred and served a prison sentence for jury tampering.

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Waiting for him on the outside is the former client that he’s come to love, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), and out of love she confronts the old man and berates him for what he has unwittingly done to his sons, worst of all Max. Hayward’s performance is poised, at first sultry and then full of fight as she battles for what’s hers. She’s one strong woman in what seems a sea of benevolent ones.

The inevitable finally happens and Gino dies but he has left behind residual bitterness that still seethes between the siblings. The other three remain jealous of Max’s hallowed place at their father’s right hand and he sees their takeover of their father’s bank as seditious.

Conte seems often criminally underappreciated and best-remembered as a casualty of Michael Corleone. But do a survey of his career and you realize how crucial he was to the film noir movement serving up a versatility that found him in sympathetic roles as well as villainous turns running the gamut from Call Northside 777 (1947), Thieves Highway (1949), and Whirlpool (1949) to Cry of The City (1948) and The Big Combo (1955).

On a side note, this picture would once again briefly pair Conte with Debra Paget romantically though, oddly, she was only about 16 at the time. The studio’s executives must have seen something…

However, with House of Strangers Conte straddles the line between most of his other roles. Ruthless when he needs to be, capable of a grudge even, and still generally affectionate of the ones he loves. It’s arguably his most far-ranging and nuanced performance of the whole lot and he does a sterling job.

Because to drag The Godfather comparison out further, if Robinson is Vito, in some regards, the most prominent figure in the film, then Conte’s Max is Michael, the son who soon comes into his own and becomes the new center. He owns the picture just as Pacino ultimately became emblematic of The Godfather as a dynasty.

The repercussions of brother pitted against brother are evident. The forces of their father are still working on them almost unconsciously now. It’s been built into how they perceive family. But in a single shining moment, Max wrenches his clan out of this self-destructive horror that their dear old departed dad seemingly cultivated. Instead, he lays the foundation for something more substantive even if the healing comes in incremental baby steps.

Old habits die hard but that doesn’t mean they can’t be eradicated…Maybe. More importantly, he hears the impatient honk of that same horn out on the adjoining street. He’s still got his girl. The film’s happy ending deserves a noirish asterisk. Some amount of loss must come with any gain.

3.5/5 Stars

Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

TheKeysoftheKingdomvideocover.jpg“Heathens are not always low just as Christians are not always high.” – Gregory Peck as Father Chilsum

Tales of humble priests are more fit for the likes of a Bresson or Rossellini, but Hollywood proves it too can offer up a film with resonance along similar lines. It’s a more melodramatic tale, a  historical and religious epic of sorts, carved out of the studio era mold, but its facets are auspicious and abundant. The script comes from veterans Nunnally Johnson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

It’s also hard to believe that it was this role as Father Chilsum that truly galvanized Gregory Peck’s career early on. Because if you look at him, he’s an imposing figure, kind-faced and calm. Still, there’s an unwritten maturity that seems to dwell beyond those eyes of his like he’s been doing this for a long, long time. It makes his playing an old man not all that unbelievable, in spite of any amount of makeup.

Keys of the Kingdom is also blessed by the studio system with the likes of Thomas Mitchell, Edmund Gwen, Vincent Price and a surprisingly adequate array of Asian performers including Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, and Benson Fong in an especially notable turn as the Father’s faithful right-hand man Joseph.

Despite having a loving family, Francis came from humble roots and tough beginnings illustrated by the long-held divide between Catholics and Protestants. Even as he resolved to join the clergy, his heart struggles with love and assignments that feel unfulfilling to his heart.

That is until he asks to be assigned as a missionary in a province of China. In the ensuing decades, he works to leave his mark of goodwill on a community, and he’s an upright man not looking for so-called “Rice Christians,” believing such bartering is a forgery for God. As his track record reflects, he’s a rather unorthodox as far as priests go, but he makes up for it with sincerity. His best friend is an atheist, a doctor from back home, and he’s not just concerned about the spiritual well-being his flock but their physical health too–all too soon becoming a trusted healer of the town, despite having little to no official medical training.

And although his gains are humble, he garners the respect of most everyone he meets. His fellow helper Joseph, the initially curt Reverend Mother (Rose Stradner) and even a republic soldier Major Shen (Richard Loo), who is amazed by the religious man’s resolve. True, his congregation is hardly a boon of religious conversions, but he begins an orphanage, taking in discarded children and nurturing them on the mission grounds. Many years later the Father Chilsum is to be sent back home for the sake of his health. It’s a bittersweet goodbye to this place he called home for so many years.

However, there’s a peaceful contentment to his character that Peck reflects so seamlessly. This was a man who came here to this foreign land with a vision that went beyond conversion rates. First and foremost, he cared about loving people well, and everything else was added to him.

3.5/5 Stars

5 Fingers (1952)

5fingersHonestly, this doesn’t feel like a typical Joseph L. Mankiewicz film. It was written by someone else and because he was nearing the end of his contract with 20th Century, he didn’t end up editing the project. Supposedly the overseeing of Daryl Zanuck led to several scenes being scrapped which Mankiewicz thought were good. Also, as a director, his name does not usually scream spy thriller like an Alfred Hitchcock. He’s more in his element with cultured dramas about relationships. However, 5 Fingers is still an engaging tale based on the historical wartime events surrounding the informant code-named Cicero.

In real life, Elyesa Bazna was an Albanian born valet who worked under the British ambassador to Turkey. He played both sides, first ingratiating himself as a gentleman among the Brits and then taking pictures of top secret information and passing it off to the Germans in the period between 1943-44. Cicero, as he was called, could easily come off as an abhorrent traitor and yet James Mason plays his character Diello with an adeptness that is underlined with an air of civility. We don’t particularly care for the man, but he’s not a monster, just a bit crooked and concerned with personal gain. Mason certainly did have a knack for playing the criminal type and I must admit I’m curious to watch more films with him because his performances have not quite won me over yet. There’s still time for that.

The film altogether is not that tense, but it does set the groundwork for some interesting interactions which all seem to stem from Cicero. He is subservient and aloof when it comes to serving the ambassador. He’s quite open with the Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darreux), who turns into a confident, romantic partner, and in some ways an accomplice — just wait. Meanwhile, he deals with the Germans self-assuredly knowing what he wants and how he’s going to get it. He’s no slouch and he seems devilishly good at the spy game.

Throw in some double-crossing from the countess and a dynamite word like “Overlord” (aka D-Day) and Dellio finds himself on the run with the Brit’s counterintelligence operative (Michael Rennie) hot on his tail. Thanks to his assistance, the Germans are trying to protect him as he gets ready to hightail it to South America. There’s one small thing he didn’t account for. He’s been duped. He and the countess both. All he can do is break out in a fit of laughter. I’m not sure if that’s how the real story ended — probably not, but it makes for a fitting conclusion of this tale as his money slowly drifts away in the wind.

3.5/5 Stars

No Way Out (1950)

220px-No_Way_Out_(1950_film)_posterI had a preconceived notion that No Way Out might be the kind of social drama that was groundbreaking for its day and by today’s standards looks mundane and quaint. 65 years have passed and this film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz still packs a wallop, believe it or not. We are blessed with the first major role for screen icon Sidney Poitier as young doctor Luther Brooks. His main antagonist is Richard Widmark playing a racist scumbag like he does best, and Linda Darnell also gives a key performance, although her career would soon be on the decline.

The film opens with the young interning doctor — Poitier was only 22 at the time –getting ready for a night shift. His first customers just happen to be Johnny and Ray Biddle, who both got it in the leg after a botched robbery attempt. At first glance, their wounds look superficial, but Luther notices Johnny is disoriented. His diagnosis is a brain tumor so he tries to administer a spinal tap which ends up unsuccessful, partially due to Ray’s constant berating. But Ray has no sympathy; all he knows is that this black doctor has killed his brother. A white doctor could have saved him and all his prejudiced beliefs of blacks are confirmed. At least that’s what he tells himself in his narrow little mind.  Luther even goes to his superior Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), and although he cannot be absolutely certain, he maintains confidence in Luther’s competence.

nowayout1Again that bears little importance to Ray and he will not grant them the opportunity to do an autopsy. After all, his mind is already made up. So the next best thing is to track down Johnny’s former wife Edie (Darnell), who has pulled herself out of the gutter which is Beaver Canal and made a modest living for herself. They want her help, and unbeknownst to them, she does go see Ray. You can see it in how they interact with each other. She was Johnny’s wife once, but there was something between them and Ray won’t let her forget it. That’s undoubtedly why she wanted to get away, but Ray brings out the worst in her. Even as they speak, her racist sentiments come bubbling to the surface. It’s in her veins after all. It doesn’t help that unrest is building in the city. A riot is at hand and the slow build-up leading to the imminent rumble is boiling with tension. Mankiewicz does something important here. He shows both perspectives. I cannot help but think some things have not changed a whole lot over the years. Black vs. white. The same racism. The same belligerence. The same lack of understanding.

nowayout2Of course, after that is all done, that still does not wrap things up with Ray. He still has to settle a score with Luther and he uses Edie against her will. They set a trap at the home of Dr. Wharton for the unsuspecting Luther, and this scene has vital importance to the film, not simply because Biddle and Brooks come face to face once more. This is the scene where Edie must make a choice. Really it’s the universal choice. Stand passively by as injustice is being done or take a stand against it.

So you can make your own diagnosis, but this was not a superficial message movie. It hits fairly hard. I was even surprised by how often Ray Biddle lets the N-word fly. It completely fit Widmark’s characterization, but the production codes allowed it. Supposedly the actor apologized profusely after many of his scenes with Poitier, but his performance is nevertheless potent. It’s certainly convicting and we cannot be too quick to find fault with any of these characters because, truth be told, we all have some apathy and narrow-mindedness stuck inside our skulls. No Way Out is a striking reminder of that.

4/5 Stars

Review: All About Eve (1950)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/5 Stars

People Will Talk (1951)

peoplewill1People Will Talk is in this weird gray area between genres. It has humor but it’s not screwy enough to be a screwball. It has drama, but it’s not intense enough to be a full-fledged melodrama. And underlining all this are issues that reflect such areas as the medical industry, the Korean War, and most definitely the witch hunts that were going on in the nation — bleeding into the Hollywood industry.

Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this is a minor classic about a doctor named Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant), who is under investigation from one of his by-the-book colleagues Dr. Elwell (Hume Cronyn), who dislikes the good doctor’s unorthodox and thoroughly effective approach to his trade. Praetorius by now is a preeminent physician who started his own clinic and also teaches classes at a local med school.

One of these individuals happens to be Mrs. Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain). She is not a student but sits in the lecture because her former partner was a medic. A date with a cadaver proves to be too much for her and she faints. Seems normal enough right? Wrong. After examining her, the Dr. tells her she’s pregnant. The truth comes out that she’s not really married and the father is dead. Her own father would be greatly distressed to learn about her condition, since he cannot provide for her.

That’s where Dr. Praetorious comes into the picture, and he takes great concern in Ms. Higgins condition. He attempts to allay her anxiety by saying she’s not really pregnant, and she runs away from his clinic out of embarrassment, since she is falling in love with him. He goes with his stoic friend Mr. Shunderson to the farm owned by Deborah’s uncle.

Deborah turns out to have a strange mix of aloofness and lovesickness, but when she realizes the Doctor’s true motive for being there (before he even does) she is wholly relieved. They share a passionate kiss and leave the farm behind to get married. Of course, the Doctor still hasn’t told her about the pregnancy.

Meanwhile, the whole storyline culminates with a concert conducted by Praetorious himself, but it just so happens that the hearing to analyze his conduct is happening simultaneously. Some mysterious truths about Mr. Shunderson are given in his own words, and stale Mr. Elwell’s case is dumped. Everything wraps up nicely as you expect with a happy marriage and Grant free to direct the symphony in one last glorious crescendo.

So you see if you really look at this film, there are these two main story arcs. One is a response to McCarthy’s witch hunts, the other an equally subversive love story about a doctor marrying a woman who had a pregnancy out of wedlock. When you put it that way this film seems chock full of controversy, and yet it is all veiled in a palatable comedy-romance. Walter Slezak is a welcomed addition to the cast as the nutty colleague and Hume Cronyn has taken on better roles, but nonetheless, he is always an enjoyable character actor. Obviously, this is a lesser Grant performance, but his pairing with Jeanne Crain is still a fun one.

4/5 Stars