The Song of The Thin Man (1947)

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The Song of The Thin Man is really and truly the swan song of the series and while I did enjoy most of the additions, there is a sense that it was time to end the franchise. The year is 1947. The war is over. Things have changed. It really has little to do with William Powell and Myrna Loy being older or past their prime, because they are still a joy to watch working in tandem and they’re hardly over the hill.

But in some respects, society didn’t need Nick and Nora anymore. They were more like a touch of nostalgia than an up-and-coming force because they were born out of the Depression years and though they grew and matured as characters well after that, it seemed like as good a time as any to let them be.

Their son, little Nick Charles Jr. (a young Dean Stockwell) is a precocious lad like his father.  His behavior is deserving a spanking though his father is averse to giving it out even on his wife’s behest. But this was never meant to be a family comedy. Even Asta was always a sidekick and not a focal point.

Most of the film is conceived on a luxury liner, the S.S. Fortune amid nightclub musicians and patrons who have come out for a charity benefit put on by the wealthy David Thayer. It’s the perfect locale for, you guessed it, murder.

The center point of it all is Tommy Drake, the band leader scrapped for cash and with plenty of bones to pick with any number of people. He wound up gunned down from behind. In introducing all the players, it’s safe to assume they’re potential suspects too. There’s songbird Fran Page (Gloria Grahame), the ship’s proprietor Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), and the soused musician Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor). It’s Brant and his forbidden fiancee Janet Thayer (Jayne Meadows) who come to the Charleses’ so that Phil’s name might be cleared.

Bess Flowers turns up in a fairly visible role given her usual penchant for bit parts in hundreds of high profile films. Leon Ames returns to The Thin Man universe in an unsual circumstance of the same actor taking on a different role. Helen Vinson who played his wife previously was not available for the picture and so the exquisite Patricia Morrison (currently 102 years young at the time of this viewing) filled the part instead. Even noir regular Marie Windsor shows up as a gangster’s moll although I’m not sure if she even utters a word.

Anyway, back to the business at hand, Nick and Nora Charles and the mystery. One of the best parts of the film is watching the Charleses be introduced to the jazz beatnik culture craze and their guide is none other than Clinker (Keenan Wynn) a real hip cat on the reed who happened to be aboard the liner when the murder occurred.

It should be noted that when rock n’ roll came Beethoven could be found rolling in his grave. Currently, his bust simply looks begrudgingly from his perch, given the state of affairs with the contemporary music scene.

Interestingly enough, there aren’t many police authorities running around to get in the way. It’s all Nick Charles joined by his wife and, in this case, Clinker who has connections to really help them understand the scene.

Although the setup and the characters are interesting enough, the film probably has the least satisfying finale of any of the Thin Man films. It winds up back on the ocean liner but it somehow doesn’t come off like its predecessors. Even the fact that the picture is a good 20 minutes shorter than the earlier films seems to suggest the beginning of the end. But on the bright side, for once Nick was able to retire for good — to his bedroom that is. Its fitting, really. Mr. and Mrs. Charles gave us plenty of laughs. They deserve to rest in peace.

3.5/5 Stars

The Clock (1945)

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May 25th, 1945. That’s when The Clock was originally released. To save you doing all the mental calculations V-E Day was on Tuesday, May 8th and the folks at home were ready for the war to be over. So in such an environment, this is hardly a war film and it can’t even claim to be a post-war picture like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It’s floating in limbo.

This is the story of a fresh-faced soldier boy in the big city (Robert Walker) constantly craning his neck in awe of skyscrapers and cowering a little bit under the weight of them all. As such he’s constantly being bumped into, like a tourist perpetually lost. From such a moment springs an almost unforgivable meet-cute we can spy from a mile away. She trips over him and loses a heel.

But our stars are winsome and their persons genuine in nature in the days when that was unequivocally so. Corporal Joe Allen (Walker) proves to be to New York City what Mr. Smith was to Washington D.C. He even rides the very same sightseeing bus. He’s also a bit of an idealistic builder not unlike George Bailey.

The soldier and the gal he asks to follow a piece, end up taking a Central Park stroll together followed by a tour of the local art museum, taking a load off, butt up against an Egyptian sphinx. There’s something inherently refreshing about its meandering wanderings through New York City. It gives this illusion of circumstance where there is no clear-cut agenda. In a moment of decision, he goes pell-mell chasing after her bus because he knows something special is onboard and he sets up a date just like that.

Vincente Minnelli is looking out for his heroine as Judy Garland was his own new romantic interest but his camera setups also reflect a stewardship over the contents of the film with his usual array of fluid shots. Far from just taking care of Garland you always get a sense Minnelli is watching out for all his actors with his camera often walking alongside them. She proves to be a fine performer sans singing and although long remembered for Strangers on a Train (1951) and his tumultuous personal life, Robert Walker undoubtedly exudes a naive candor of his own.

It’s always striking how Hollywood was able to cast a certain vision of the every day while reality was oftentimes so different. One aspect of that was the wartime shortages which made shooting on location highly impractical so everything from train stations to exteriors were created on the MGM lot to closely mirror their real-life counterparts and it, for the most part, takes very well. We feel like we are traveling through the big city with a soldier and a gal. At any rate, the city crowds feel realistically suffocating.

But beyond the simple (or not so simple) realm of sound stages and set design it also extends to the actors themselves. Robert Walker who played opposite his wife in the epic home front drama Since You Went Away (1944), had a horrid time getting through the picture as their marriage was on the rocks.

By the time he got to The Clock he had been overtaken by alcohol addiction and Jennifer Jones was all but on the way to marrying executive David O. Selznick. Judy Garland on her part, that shining beacon of traditional Americana was struggling with an addiction of her own and after some creative differences with Fred Zinnemann, she had her soon-to-be husband Vincente Minnelli brought on to revitalize the production.

In these ways, it becomes obvious how there’s almost a conflicting double life going on in front of and behind the camera and yet there’s no doubting that this picture is brimming with sincerity whether partially made up or perfectly simulated. It still works.

You can undoubtedly see the same fascination with the very conversations and interactions that make up a relationship in everyday environments. The walking and talking we do when we share time together. The silly things we get caught up on or pop into our heads on a whim. And yes, there is a bit of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) in Minnelli’s picture for those who wish to draw the parallels but the beauty of it is The Clock is obviously not trying to be anything else. It takes simple joy in its story and the characters it holds in its stead.

It’s a film that dares have a scene where our two leads sit in a park, silent for a solitary moment as they listen to the street noise emanating from the city center and breaking into their tranquility. Take another extended sequence where the two lovebirds catch a ride on a midnight milk wagon driven by that perennial favorite James Gleason.

He’s the local milkman waiting impatiently for his request on the late night radio station and intent on some company along the route. But a flat tire puts him out of commission only to bring about another inspired piece of casting. Keenan Wynn as a drunk appears for mere minutes and earns high billing in the picture. It’s worth it. When our stars are allowed to sink into the periphery, the accents of the real world come into focus.

It’s equally true that those are the exact moments where you see the extent of another person’s character. Because it’s not simply the two of you but you get the opportunity to see them in a context with other people and that’s often very telling about who they are. Depending on the perceptions it can make you fall even more in love with someone and seeing as these two individuals help their new friend with his milk run, you can just imagine what it does for their relationship.

As for James Gleason and Lucille Gleason, they make the quintessential cute old couple and that’s because they truly are spinning their wisdom and bickering like only the most steadfast wedded folks do. The last leg of the film is when it goes for drama turning into a literal race against the clock bookended by one of the most distinct courthouse weddings ever captured. But even this picture doesn’t end there. Further still, it sinks back into this odd shadowland between the drama and the happy ending.

We could venture a guess it settles in on a realistic denouement where life isn’t always as we would like it but we can still love people deeply and do not regret the decisions we have made. As we walk off into the crowd with Judy Garland there is little to no regret only a faint hope for a future and assurance in the institution of marriage as something worth pursuing.

They are traditional values and yet somehow, in this context, there’s something comforting about them. Minnelli has spun his magic on us even as the cinematic in its so-called reality slowly drifts away from the Hollywood marital standards of its stars. It’s both an idealized vision and a genuine one.

4/5 Stars

For Me and My Gal (1942)

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Here is a good old-fashioned American musical that effectively acts as an homage to the vaudevillian circuit that saw many performers realize their talents including numerous future Hollywood icons. At the core is a musical dream team in Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

Behind the camera is the much revered Busby Berkeley who made musicals into gargantuan extravaganzas thanks to how he managed to capture human forms from above like no one before him. Ironically, here he’s working in a somewhat more conventional and dare I say, informal setting where we get to share the mundane spaces with our stars.

Kelly is Harry Palmer, a man who makes a living clowning around on stage. The arm spinning pirouettes and the athletic moves that defined his style of hoofing are obvious from the outset as are his infectious charm and winning smile. He’s still in the latent stages of his genius but that’s okay. There’s still time.

Judy Garland at this point in her career already had sizable stardom and it was Kelly the Broadway up-and-comer featured in his film debut. But in the ensuing decade, there was no doubt about it whatsoever. They both became quintessential musical stars of a generation along with a select few.

Jo Hayden (Garland) is a song and dance gal who while not having made “The Big Time” yet, still has a noticeable amount of talent. She partners with the good-natured Jimmy Metcalf (George Murphy) who harbors an obvious crush on her. She thinks he’s sweet.

Harry Palmer on the other hand, always seems to be making a fool of himself. A genuine person like her can see right through his come-ons. While her gangly brother (Richard Quine) agrees to finish up his med school, Jo is following her ambitions to get somewhere. She subsequently realizes she does have a bit of chemistry with Palmer on stage after an impromptu performance, if not for the fact that she is already a part of an act.

Jimmy does the noble thing and lets her go as they all have their sights on the Palace Theater in New York City.  You see, it’s the holy grail for vaudeville performers. It means you’ve made it. Palmer is ecstatic when he meets a singer (Martha Eggerth) who already performs there, thinking she might be his in. But he remains true to what he has going with Jo. Still, time and time again they’re playing small towns and their aspirations never seem in reach.

Even when it is right there in front of them and their manager (Keenan Wynn) has seemingly pulled through, Harry is torn up to find that he’s been drafted to head over to France to help the doughboys in putting the Kaiser to rest. He’s no draft dodger but he wants his dream so much and they are so close to being realized. He takes a plan of action that Jo misconstrues as cowardice. She’s ashamed that he would do such a thing especially since her brother is overseas fighting already.

Thankfully that is not the final word. Life sometimes has a curious way of bringing people back together and in the case of this cinematic world, we get a cheering finale courtesy of the MGM dream factory. While For Me and My Gal revels in its star power and the intimate chemistry built between them on the stage and in dressing rooms or in train compartments, we are soon reminded that this film has an ulterior motive. It’s a musical, it’s a romance, but it’s also a product of the American homefront.

Like a Sergeant York (1941) or a Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) this effort was made with a higher purpose to act as a kindling rallying cry for nationalistic fervor going into WWII. However, just like its contemporaries, the reason we’re still watching it today isn’t necessarily due to those aspirations but the emotional connection elicited from its stars. This is what makes For Me and My Gal truly swell with sentiment. Thankfully Judy Garland and Gene Kelly got together on two more musical efforts to keep it going. Because they help elevate this above the spectrum of a run-of-the-mill propaganda musical with their palpable charisma that transcends any maudlin patches.

4/5 Stars

Shack Out on 101 (1955)

Shack_Out_on_101_film_posterLike a Cry Danger (1951) or a Private Hell 36 (1954), this low budget film noir flick is such a joy to watch because it wears what it is right on its sleeve, clear out in the open. What we get is an utterly absurd paranoia thriller that also happens to be a heaping plate of B-noir fun.

It’s a dirty, grimy picture about a dirty, grimy place. The cook behind the counter’s named Slob (Lee Marvin) and he has a dirty mind and disheveled look to match. He’s constantly at odds with the owner of the roadside shack (Keenan Wynn) and they make countless verbal barbs at each other time and again. You get the feeling that they relish jawing and putting the other man down.

Meanwhile, though the joint might not be one of the most frequented attractions there is some traffic from PCH and it brings in a few regular visitors.

The day-to-day “Hash Slinger” and longtime waitress Kotty (Terry Moore) is in the middle of a rapturous romance with a local professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy), and she’s beyond ecstatic to be going with someone who is a real man — intelligent and gentlemanly. Though recently he’s been especially occupied with work.

The traveling salesman Eddie (Whitt Bissell) with a nervous streak nevertheless remains a tried and true friend. He and George (Wynn) both made it through D-Day together and since then he always makes a habit of coming by the old place when he has a free moment. Kotty and the Professor take kindly to him too. He’s just that kind of amiable fellow.

Shack Out on 101 shines most obviously amid its small talk because there’s an invention to the dialogue that’s delightfully slovenly and colloquial. It’s full of the types of dialects, jabs, and put-downs that fill our everyday conversations in a way that feels thoroughly authentic and brings each character alive as they sit at the counter.

There might be two men standing in the front of the diner on a slow day lifting weights and talking about how muscles are for amateurs. Pecs are what real men call them.  Then they proceed to show off and compare their physical attributes. No reservations whatsoever.

Later on, they try out the latest fashions in spearfishing attire as they dream about the mythical “Pancho” who they’ll soon spear in the tropical waters off the coast of Mexico. Little do they know how close that is to the truth. Except there’s no need to go to Mexico. The catch is right at home.

When the film actually gets preoccupied with its plotting, it starts to go cockeyed and crazy. Admittedly, fallout from the Cold War must have been on everyone’s minds because, like Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), this picture too tries to play the nuclear angle. It’s hardly effective though I suppose it needed a broader, more concrete story to add a certain amount of intrigue and this one is complete with spies and government secrets.

Still, in the end, it comes out pretty thin. What we truly relish as the audience are not the attempts at drama but the way the film manages to make its apparent lulls invariably interesting and even how it manages to have asides at all given its infinitesimal running time. Sure, it won’t win any awards and the joint is a real dive but that’s all part of its cruddy charm. For a B-picture, this cast is quite the array of talent.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Nashville (1975)

nashville3What to say about Robert Altman’s Nashville? It has a lot of songs and music so it’s technically a musical. It has its smattering politics and Altman is typically one for subverting the norm so you could call it a satire. There’s romance, drama, in-fighting, and star power certainly, but that hardly gets to the heart of the film.

In fact, Nashville has an ensemble bulging at the seams with 24 individuals billed in alphabetical order and their names called out at the beginning of the film as if someone is trying to sell us an album. It’s a little over the top, feels superficial, and it’s a little pretentious. Maybe the director’s trying to tell us something. Over the course of the following minutes, Altman gives us a picture of a few days in the life of the country music capital of the world, and he shows us all sorts of people.

nashville1To name all of them would be tedious and would not give a whole lot of illumination as far as the plotting, but a few of the more prominent names are as follows: Barbara Jean, the sweetheart of Nashville, who opens the film receiving a warm welcome at the airport from her adoring public. But she is physically and emotionally fragile after recovering from a traumatic injury. Then there’s Haven Hamilton, who is an established country star, who still enjoys large popularity and political ambitions are on his radar. Jeff Goldblum, Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, Ned Beatty, and even Keenan Wynn all make appearances. So as you can see the cast is oozing through the cracks.

Their stories are constantly colliding, intertwining, and weaving in and out of each other. Making for a type of narrative that feels organic despite having a script. It feels like a realistic and truthful immersion into Tennessee reality. We even get appearances from a couple Altman regulars Elliot Gould and Julie Christie. Furthermore, it wasn’t much of a secret that the industry in Nashville did not take a liking to the film, but really is that any surprise?

Going into the film we already expect to get a look at the industry’s underbelly and we do, but it’s hardly seems sensationalized; it almost feels commonplace until the final moments. Singers griping, sleeping around, reporters ingratiating themselves to whoever they can find, and the general public coming from far and wide to be a part of the spectacle. It’s about what you expect from an industry that can be ruthless, superficial, and very rewarding to some. To those on the outside, it’s something to be fawned over.

nashville2The story is framed with the political campaign of the unconventional Hal Philip Walker of the Replacement Party. You can see his van going all across town proclaiming his wisdom to the honest citizens of Nashville. Most of them could care less about politics. Even in the closing moments at a concert in the park with a big flag patriotically displayed on stage with a giant campaign banner underneath, you get the sense that no one has gone there for political reasons. They want to hear Barbara Jean, Haven Hamilton, and maybe tolerate anyone else who comes up on stage. In a sense, that’s the American way wrapped up in a nutshell.  Taken in that light, the way that Altman ends his film is not all that surprising. There has to be something to break up the normalcy. Subvert all that is good and patriotic. Throw a wrench in the every day, because after all his whole film has revealed everything that besmirches the industry. It’s just that it usually stays under the surface or is thrown away to be trampled on or forgotten. Take the no-talent Sueleen Gay, who stubbornly tries to make it in an industry that doesn’t want her.

I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m not much of a fan of country, except if it’s someone like Johnny Cash. So overall I find the tunes of Nashville to be homely and often tiresome, although I do appreciate the fact the actors wrote most of their own songs supposedly. The one exception I cite is Keith Carradine’s memorable tune “I’m Easy” which works as a simple ballad reminiscent of a Jim Croce-type singer-songwriter.

However, I don’t get hung up on Nashville‘s music too much, because this film represents so much more to me. It’s about the intermingling of people and the analysis and dissection of the relationships that are so closely entwined with the country music industry. Whether it’s the insiders or the fans who make them big, Nashville is a thoroughly interesting view of America circa 1975. Some things have certainly changed, fashion-related and otherwise, but I think we can all agree that a lot of things certainly have not. Politics, music, and most certainly people essentially exist as they always have.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr._StrangeloveHow to speak of Dr. Strangelove? To clarify I mean the film and not the character. First and foremost, it’s one of those films that has so much significance, because of the era it came out of and for the way it represents that time and space. It’s the defining film about the Cold War, much in the same way All the President’s Men is identified with Watergate and the sentiments at the time.

This film is wickedly funny, and yet I never found myself laughing out loud. There was more often a smirk slowly forming on my face. This film is a landmark and an important piece of cinema and yet I could never say I have a passionate love for it. What sets it apart is the way that Kubrick is able to tackle the paranoia at the time.

His plot is utterly ridiculous and absurd and yet in anything, there is always a sliver of truth that seems all too real. A film throwing around talk of nuclear war and doomsday devices is rather bleak and so I suppose Dr. Strangelove is a type of morbid humor. Certainly a black, satirical comedy.

Kubrick’s story is split into three sections: There the B-52 bomber where the crew including Slim Pickens and a young James Earl Jones patrol the skies until they get the unmistakable order to proceed with “Plan R” which begins an attack on Russia. Slim Pickens is an inspired piece of casting with his iconic southern drawl because he plays everything straight, but you cannot help find it funny. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the cockpit and then there’s, of course, his mounting the bucking bomb, but that comes later…

The order was given on the command of a General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) after he ordered his aide British officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to put their base on high alert. All this came about because of Ripper’s fears about fluoridation and bodily fluids. He’s sure the Commies have infiltrated and so he prepares to decimate them. He bypasses the president, all communication is cut off, and he locks himself and Mandrake up in his office. As far as he’s concerned the deed is done. He can just go on chomping on his cigar while comforting Mandrake. Because there’s no way that he would ever disclose the three-letter code so his aide can warn the Pentagon.

The final setting of the film takes place in the legendary war room which feels rather like a velodrome with a table in the center. There the highest officials of the nation gather round to try and figure out what to do about this national crisis. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) advises the president on what to do about the situation while chewing away at a wad of gum. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers once more), is far from pleased and he even sends a call over “the hotline,” to the Russian Premier. He shares his deep regrets about the situation with Dimitri and it gives Seller a stage on which to work his deadpan humor. Muffley also tries to maintain order after Turgidson and the Russian Ambassador get in a scuffle (Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!).

Meanwhile, a battle ensues at Ripper’s base as the apt billboard inscribed “Peace is our Program” sits in the background. This is an utterly ludicrous firefight and it ends with an appearance by Keenan Wynn ready to take Mandrake and Ripper captive. However, the general has already kicked the bucket and Mandrake attempts to use a payphone to reach the Pentagon.

But the best advice the president gets comes from Nazi-defector Dr. Strangelove (Sellers number three), who is restricted to a wheelchair and still has trouble stifling his “Heil Hitler” and “Mein Fuhrer.” His final solution is to gather a few hundred people in mine shafts underground, away from the radiation, where they can procreate. The female to male ratio optimally would be 10:1 and that starts Turgidson salivating. We don’t quite know how it ends, but Kubrick ends with the iconic juxtaposition of nuclear bombs exploding as “We’ll Meet Again” wafts through the air. It’s the last brilliant piece of humor.

Dr. Strangelove is a great film in part because of its performances beginning with Seller. We’re used to his lovable buffoon Inspector Clouseau and yet he’s quite different here. Each character is starkly different in fact, but each one is played straight with their assorted quirks laid out for us.  Slim Pickens, a man also known for his comedic sidekick roles is playing it straight which is also funny in itself.

Finally, George C. Scott is one of the stars that we would label a dramatic actor and yet this is probably the most over the top and odd performance of his career. It’s wonderfully vibrant in all respects from the gesticulation of his body to his facial expressions.

Everything’s an odd mix where hysteria with global consequence is matter-of-fact. There’s no fighting in war rooms. There are Cold Wars and Hotlines. Nazi Doctors advise the president and Russian ambassadors are tackled to the ground. It’s pointing to the inconsistencies in this world that we live in. It’s a satire about the absurdity of nuclear deterrence in an age where that was in vogue.

4.5/5 Stars