Pushover (1954)

pushover 2.png

A film such as Pushover is easy to admire for the simple fact that it does not waste a moment in telling its story. As the credits roll a bank job is already in full progress laying the basic groundwork for what will unravel in the subsequent minutes.

The introduction of our stars follows soon thereafter in a meet-cute happening outside of a local theater, the pretense being engine trouble. It’s enough of an excuse for them to make a connection — two people who started the evening on their own but felt enough of a spark to wind up together.

Of course, when we pull back it’s easy to realize a pretense is all that it was. Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) is a cop tasked by his police chief (E.G. Marshall) to help recover the $200,000 that was nabbed in the bank job. The alluring young Lona McLane (Kim Novak) ties into it all because she was the one-time moll of wanted thug Harry Wheeler.

Thus, the police soon have her apartment under surveillance and her phone tapped for any hint of contact with the gangster. But what they weren’t counting on is for Sheridan to fall for her and put his own stake in getting back the missing money. Meanwhile, his partner Rick trusts him completely and the old vet Paddy is just trying to limp by to retain his pension.

What develops is this strange dichotomy between what is the ethical long arm of the law and what is pure voyeurism encroaching on a person’s right to privacy. Though it doesn’t explore the topic as Rear Window (1954) did that same year, there are still some interesting issues to be culled through.

Further still, despite being a policeman, Sheridan’s personal philosophy seems to be that money makes the world go around. Although he’s quite a bit older, there’s still much to enjoy about Fred MacMurray. Even if his occupation has changed, there is a sense that he’s playing another thinly veiled version of Walter Neff, that pragmatic everyman not fully prepared for playing with fire. Since that role was one of the ones that lit up his career, if this is a mere copy, it’s still a fairly enjoyable one placing him opposite Novak’s femme fatale.

There are passionate kisses that strike like lighting, some gorgeous shadows that easily help to put this into the dark recesses of the noir canon, also reflected by the number of cigarettes smoked and the loose morals that run through the narrative.

Even in her scintillating debut, Kim Novak’s voice is as husky and sultry as ever. Whether wearing her mink coats or driving her sleek wheels. Smoking her cigarettes and coolly spilling her drinks on anyone who gets fresh with her.

But she is not one of the independent strong-willed dames out of the war years. She is not Phyllis Dietrichson. She comes from a different generation and so, far from being a manipulator, it feels far more like she is willingly complicit in Sheridan’s plan as he takes the reins. In fact, it’s difficult to call her a femme fatale at all in the typical sense. It’s really the men around her who are crooked and more than anything she garners sympathy.

Phil Carey plays the stalwart cop who stands by his colleagues but he’s also no schmuck when it comes to laying down the law. The ever-active nurse next door (Dorothy Malone) who shares an adjoining wall with Lona becomes the object of his desire and it conveniently sets up parallel love stories. We now have two cops and two gals. Two romances and a line of entanglements as Sheridan tries to sidestep his colleagues and get the payoff for his own and for his beautiful new accomplice. Pushover develops into a delightfully messy piece of drama full of police corruption and avarice. But it’s a small-time story too. That’s part of its charm.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

KissMeStupidPosterWhile a less heralded picture, this Billy Wilder film is a minor classic built around a contrived comedic situation. Dean Martin opens playing a parodied version of himself as Dino the boozing, womanizing, but altogether good-natured playboy who makes a short pit stop in the gas station of the small town of Climax, Nevada following his latest Las Vegas circuit.

The beauty of his performance, though it may be exaggerated, there is no sense that this is a thinly veiled caricature. It’s blatantly obvious that “Dino” as he is called in the film is really only playing his “Rat Pack” persona that was known the world over.

That sets the groundwork for the film’s self-reflexive nature that is keenly aware of its cultural moment and the preoccupations of the general public as with many of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s best scripts.

Truthfully I’ve always been fond of Ray Walston ever since my first viewing of My Favorite Martian and before this picture, he cropped up in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Although I do adore Peter Sellers (who had to bow out due to a heart attack) and he’s often an ad-libbing genius, somehow Walston seems to more aptly fit the bill here.

That doesn’t mean I don’t regret that Jack Lemmon couldn’t take the role because he really was Billy Wilder’s greatest comedic counterpart, portraying every bit of neuroses that manifests itself in the middle-class everyman. He just gets it and putting him opposite his real-life wife in Felicia Farr would have been another delightful ironic layer to this comedy with its roots in infidelity.

No matter. It was not to be and what we are left with is still some fairly hefty star power. Walston audaciously takes center stage as Orville Spooner, a small town piano teacher with a paranoid fit of jealousy in relation to his gorgeous wife (Felicia Farr). He believes everyone from his teenage pupil to the local milkman is out to pluck his bright-eyed, loving bride away from him.

That’s of the utmost importance when his buddy (Cliff Osmond) dreams up a plan to get themselves a contract deal with Dino. It involves hosting the conveniently laid up pop singer, getting rid of Orville’s wife, and employing the services of one of the main attractions at the local watering hole The Belly Button — the one and only Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak). It seems simple enough to get her to masquerade as Orville’s wife just for the evening so she can make Dino feel at home.

You can see already that the narrative is entangled with bits and pieces of The Apartment (1960) and The Seven Year Itch (1957). Miscommunication and four parties involved means all sorts of foreseeable consequences. Kiss Me, Stupid is also fully aware of the contemporary Hollywood framework much in the same way of Sunset Blvd. Thus, it’s not above satirizing the ways of the entertainment industry — especially the movie stars — with the Rat Pack placed front and center thanks to Martin.

The small-time piano man and gas station attendant also have dreams of being the next Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer dynamic duo with aspirations for The Ed Sullivan Show no doubt.

Even in its throwaway lines about churchgoers, there’s something starkly sobering being acknowledged as there are in many of the things that Wilder finds time to take a jab at. The owner of the Belly Button, Big Bertha, has all her girls attend the local church because she thinks it’s good for public relations.

It passes like a blip but the suggestion seems to be that these lines of dialogue and what we see on screen might point out some kind of hypocrisy and although it’s played for comedy, instead what I see is the inherent brokenness.

The film spins in such a way that the infidelity somehow ends in a kind of loving understanding that feels like utter absurdity but maybe Wilder has done that on purpose. Still, in spite of myself, I found some humor in this film in ways that I never could in The Seven Year Itch or The Apartment.

The first was too empty with little to offer of substance and the second is often too stark and morose to be funny. This film is raucous and utterly insane in a sense but that’s the way Wilder likes it from Some Like it Hot (1959) to One, Two, Three (1961). Kiss Me Stupid isn’t such a spectacular comedy with some misfires but there’s no doubt that Wilder still has his stuff.

He always seemed to take a very basic concept that was wacky and far from allowing it to fizzle out, he sees it to completion, finding an ending that derives laughs while simultaneously providing wry commentary.

In another screenwriter’s hands or another director for that matter, the romantic comedy aspects would be endangered of becoming trite and uninspired but no such issue here. Wilder would never allow it.

The punchline of Kiss Me, Stupid is that both spouses were deceptive and unfaithful but they do it out of love — that final touch of trenchant Wilder wit. Ultimately, the film’s title is reminiscent of the famed quip in The Apartment (1960), “Shut up and deal.” You get the same sense of the relationship.

The men are essentially cads — spineless at times — and lacking much of a moral makeup (even if Orville plays the organ at church) but their women seem to give them some substance whether they be barmaids or plucky housewives. It’s still slightly mindboggling that Wilder pulled this movie off and got away with it no less.

3.5/5 Stars

The Man with The Golden Arm (1955)

220px-The_Man_with_the_Golden_Arm_poster

Everybody’s habitual something ~ Kim Novak as Molly

Otto Preminger was the creator of a number of important “issue pictures” because he dared deal with themes that others had shied away from, mostly in part because of the production codes that ruled Hollywood well into the 1960s. Thus, any type of drug addiction was seemingly out of the question.

Such an issue might seem almost unthinkable in this day and age but that very fact is one of the reasons that The Man with the Golden Arm still maintains some resonance. Perhaps it has aged some and looks tame by today’s standards, a film that hardly dares to mention the drug in question, and yet there is much to be enjoyed all the same.

Saul Bass’s opening titles for one made the credit sequences of a film into an important attraction and he did much the same for Alfred Hitchcock and other Preminger films as well. The film is also laced with what might be best termed as sleazy jazz music to underscore the world that Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) returns to.

Before a word of dialogue is even spoken in the local dive we already have a pulse on what kind of place this is. It’s the type of world that sucks the life out of you. People lead you astray and if you’re not able to make something of yourself you’re bound to sink into the pits.

He is just off a stint in the State Penitentiary but unlike many, his story has a touch of hope. He’s gotten the monkey off his back as they say. He’s no longer addicted thanks to the help of a doctor who also tried to line up a job for him as a drummer. It looks like he has some talent that can take him places. He’s got a lifeline out of town.

His return is a heralded one. Everyone’s intent on welcoming him back including first-rate scrounger Sparrow (Arnold Stang) as well as the pudgy local card shark Schwiefka and the “dealer” Nifty Louie. He’s very much the devil on Frankie’s shoulder coaxing him to give him a call if he ever needs a fix of candy because he used to be a great customer.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s wheelchair-bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) is constantly paranoid about his purported unfaithfulness and simultaneously quells any of his aspirations to make anything more of his life. She’s just a scared little person and her fear stifles Machine even as he tries to make her understand that things are different now.

The one person who does seem to understand him is his old flame Molly (Kim Novak) who is currently a hostess at the local club. He remains faithful to Zosh and yet it is the friendship with another woman that gives him the encouragement to pursue this new path.

Yet the film soon delves into the depths of addiction. As often rings true, after you think you’ve got addiction beat (any kind), it comes back with raging abandon and it goes for the choke hold. A bad break and the plethora of undesirable influences are leading Machine down the well-trod paths of old. He initially gives in and yet still battles and fights and shakes his way back to sobriety. But it’s not easy. The only place he has to turn is Molly and she gladly gives him her support.

All in all, this is a fairly unflinching portrait for the time and this picture points to the fact that Frank Sinatra was a serious actor, not simply a singer, a personality, or a star. Here he offers up an honest to goodness performance though his career was ripe with many others. Still, this one encapsulates the tortured cycles of those trapped in the throes of addiction.

Meanwhile, Kim Novak’s performance flows with a sincerity — a woman who is willing to do what is good and right even when it is difficult and seemingly offers very little recompense. It’s a stirring turn indeed.

The histrionics of Eleanor Parker are maybe a bit much and yet in this performance, you begin to see why she is hardly remembered along with other classical beauties. It’s because she actually wanted to be an actress first and a star second and thus, instead of projecting a certain image in all her pictures, it does seem like she’s constantly changing and stretching our expectations of her. Today her choices look quite audacious and yet it no doubt left her contemporary audiences a little befuddled. That in no way detracts from her efforts here if only to magnify our appreciation for Sinatra and Novak’s characters.

Rather than simply seeing this as an antiquated issue picture, a film made for a different era and for a different person than me, I would like to say that there is something of note in The Man with the Golden Arm. As Molly so lucidly acknowledges, many of us go through some type of cycle or we succumb to some habitual pattern whether it be an addiction or something less extreme. Still, either way, these very things can detract from our lives and trap us in rhythms of life that hinder our relationships and all that is truly paramount. That’s just a small caveat to take heed of.

3.5/5 Stars

Picnic (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

MY ENTRY IN THE 3RD GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON!

Review: Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo_1958_trailer_embrace“The Greatest Film of All Time.” It certainly seems like an arbitrary title, but if nothing else it gives film aficionados something to discuss. And that’s what Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is now being called for many reasons. Rather than join the debate, I wish to take a few moments to acknowledge what makes the film itself special.

On the surface, shall we say the first viewing, Vertigo is thoroughly enjoyable as a psychological thriller and mystery. The title sequence is haunting with an eye staring back at us from behind the credits and as an audience we are quickly thrown into the action, watching the opening chase scene unfold. In only a few moments one man is dead and the other John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) now has debilitating vertigo that takes him off the police force. We never learn why they were chasing a man on the rooftops. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a time later with his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that we first see Scottie after the harrowing events. She obviously cares deeply for him, and he sees her simply as a good friend so we can undoubtedly expect her to be in the film more.

Then, rather mysteriously, an old school acquaintance named Elster (Tom Helmore) calls up Ferguson, hoping to get him to shadow his wife. It has nothing to do with infidelity, but fear, because the worried husband believes that something is wrong with his wife Madeleine. She disappears for hours at a time and is barely conscious half the time. He would describe her as possessed and Scottie is noticeably skeptical. But he relents and agrees to tail her sending himself spinning headlong into a mystery that will become his obsession.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_NovakHe gets to know Madeleine by following her, all throughout the streets of San Francisco, and much like Rear Window, this part of the film becomes a repetition of scenes followed by the reactions of Stewart. Hitchcock’s background in silents is seemingly at work here as he lets the images and score of Bernard Hermann take center stage along with Stewart’s expressions. We end up all over, from a flower stand to a cemetery, an art museum, and an old hotel. Madeleine goes from place to place like a solemn specter and we watch in expectation. Something must happen.

In an instant, she leaps into the water near the Golden Gate to commit suicide and that’s when Scottie swoops in to rescue her. He can’t lose her now because by this point he’s entranced by the icy blond who he only knows from a distance. And so their relationship progresses if you can call it that. They wander together and Madeleine shares her nightmares with Scottie.

The two of them head to San Juan Bautista and that’s when the nightmares become a reality for both of them. It’s devastating to Scottie, and the second phase of the film begins. He’s inconsolable and madly in love with this girl he cannot have. She’s hardly real. But then wandering the streets listlessly he spies Judy Barton, who coincidentally looks strikingly like Madeleine.

So he does the only thing that he can think of, meet her and try to turn into the girl he so desires. His obsessions are the only things that drive him, that and the haunting memories. Finally, he figures out the mystery, but the swirling cycle continues as he goes back to San Juan Bautista. A cruel twist of deja vu rears it’s ugly head once more.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointHitchcock always was one for visual showmanship and it reveals itself whether it’s the parallel symbolism that Scottie notes in the painting of Carlotta Valdes or the out-of-body dream sequence that he suffers through. There’s also the dizzying zoom creating the so-called Vertigo Effect whenever Stewart looks down from a great height. These are obvious visual flourishes, but it’s almost more interesting to watch our main characters walk the streets of San Francisco, especially since there are so many real landmarks to work with (ie. Golden Gate, Mission San Juan Bautista, Muir Woods National Monument, and the Coit Tower among others). There’s something mesmerizing and trance-like about all these scenes that’s difficult to discount. It pulls us in as an audience. We want to see more. Bernard Hermann’s score is, of course, noteworthy and at its core, there is a constant disconcerting quality. It is strangely majestic and beautiful, but it pounds away menacingly. And it spirals in and out with the same sounds, the same crescendos. You think you would get sick of it, but strangely enough, you don’t. It enraptures us.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_embrace_2Then there are the players. Kim Novak has the dual role as Madeleine and Judy. She carries out both with the needed precision. Elster’s wife is elegantly beautiful, aloof and ethereal in a way that makes her the obvious fantasy of Stewart’s character. When she casts a sidelong glance or stares up at Stewart there is a faraway quality in her eyes. The clothes. The hair. How she talks. Even how she carries herself. She is spellbinding, otherworldly, and almost unattainable in all ways. Then there’s Judy, the epitome of a Midwestern girl. Pretty but not elegant. Smart but not cultured. But she falls for Ferguson as he falls for an impossible ideal.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Stewart_on_a_laddderJames Stewart is an important piece in this film because it’s his character’s obsession that drives the plot. His instabilities, his desires, his anguish, his vertigo. It has been said that Stewart himself is a stand-in for Hitchcock and the own inner workings of the director’s being. His obsession and lusts. That may be true but something else that could be inferred is that Stewart is really a stand-in for all of us. After all, there was no greater every man than him, but there also is a universal quality to the baggage weighing on his being. Stewart’s every man is certainly being subverted, or could it be he is becoming a more accurate depiction of everyone? It’s a scary thought but what is buried inside of us? What are our own fantasies, obsessions, and lusts that lurk under the surface? Let me put it a different way.

For Stewart, he has three prominent women in his life. There’s the fantasy in Madeleine, the perfect ideal, who will ultimately ruin his life because intimacy with her is impossible. There’s Judy who has a passionate love for him, but it seems complicated in so many ways. She’s trying to measure up to his standards. The ideals and fantasies he has created poison what they could have. Then, there’s Midge who is practical, funny, and also completely devoted to Scottie. If his head were on straight he would go right to her because he would undoubtedly find the most satisfaction in that relationship, but his obsessions have undermined that.

There was an alternate ending of the film which showed Scottie with Midge once more, listening on the radio about Elster’s capture. The ending that was kept is more powerful, not because Elster got away scotch free, but because we don’t see Midge again. She all but disappears by the end of the film and with her goes all that could have been decent and good about reality for Scottie. He gets so caught up in fantasy and that tears his life apart. He’s literally spiraling in a web of never-ending hellish obsession.  Who knows what becomes of him? We can only guess.

5/5 Stars

Vertigo (1958) – Alfred Hitchcock

acaeb-vertigomovie*May Contain Spoilers!

Vertigo is an intriguing Hitchcock thriller, set in San Francisco, that has you cheering for Jimmy Stewart as he falls in love and struggles with his fear of heights. Right away you are met with the haunting opening credits and the dramatic opening sequence where Scottie (Stewart) acquires his vertigo. From then on Scottie must cope with his dizzying condition however, he has no time to remedy it since he suddenly finds himself tailing a beautiful woman for a friend. Much of the rest of the film seems surreal with minimal dialogue and interesting cinematography, leading up to the death of Madaleine (Kim Novak). Then the film switches gears and is mostly about the impact on Scottie who had become infatuated with Madaleine. Often he appears to be in a trance and he becomes obsessive after meeting Judy who looks strikingly like Elster’s dead wife. Scottie becomes controlling, trying to make Judy into the image of the woman he loved. She just wants him to love her for who she is but that cannot be. Fittingly, the film ends the way it began with drama and tragedy. This certainly is a fascinating view of human psychology and complex emotions. In order to appreciate this film it is almost necessary to watch it at least twice, once to understand the plot and then another time to spot the little details. Of all of Hitchcock’s work, I would say I still enjoy Rear Window or North by Northwest better but this film at least deserves a viewing or two.

5/5 Stars