The Breaking Point (1950): Updating Hemingway and Hawks

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Michael Curtiz, to all those who revere him, has far more than Casablanca (1942) on his resume. It’s stacked with classics including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mildred Pierce (1945), White Christmas (1954) and even a less-heralded picture like The Breaking Point.

Those familiar with the original source material, from Ernest Hemingway, might also realize an earlier version of the story was made starring Humphrey Bogart opposite his future wife, Lauren Bacall, in her crackling debut.

Director Howard Hawks helmed To Have and Have Not (1944), which proved to be very loosely based on the eponymous material indeed. About the only elements comparable between the two renditions are the oceanic atmospherics with salty seafaring types and other undesirables mixed together liberally. Though donning a new name and casting a new star in John Garfield, it’s easy to make the case that The Breaking Point is a lot more authentic.

To Have and Have Not is a delight because it is such a cinematic creation with indelible characters filling up a world, not unlike Casablanca, ironically. But its successor unfurls qualities that feel less done up and artificial in a still delightfully atmospheric Hollywood fashion.

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One could wager it begins with a location that’s very much a real place. In fact, it’s a place I have known quite well in my lifetime. I was first tipped off to its whereabouts when Garfield gives money to his daughters to go see a movie and tells them to be careful on Marine Ave.

As I only know one Marine Ave., I double checked the film’s shooting locations and looked ever more closely at the exteriors. All this confirmed the fact The Breaking Point was shot in and around Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California. I know the area well as I used to spend some summer days there as a kid. The exteriors are most obvious when our protagonist comes back from the bar, walking by the docks, and he’s already day drunk.

We have yet to describe any of the narrative but already we have something vastly different from its predecessor. The main character is a family man, a seaman, and simultaneously trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol. What adds insult to injury is the fact Harry Morgan (Garfield) was a highly commended Navy Seamen during the war. Except, ever since coming back from the war a hero, he’s never been a somebody and that’s hard to take for a proud human being.

All he knows is the sea and so he’s tried to make a go of it obdurately, working furiously to subsist off his boat but it seems like everyone is pushing his head underwater. Try as he might, he can never get ahead. He needs dough for the reasons we all do. To pay the bills. To put food on the table. To take care of his wife and daughters.

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Soon Harry’s peddling a would-be fisherman and his gal pal (Patricia Neal) off the coast of Mexico. Of course, the shyster runs out without paying and leaves his girl behind. Harry’s been played for a sucker, stuck on the wrong side of the Mexican border, without any fare to get home. He’s kept his nose clean thus far but times are desperate. In a dive joint, he gets approached by a slimy undesirable, chomping on cigars and proposing a shady business proposition. Momentarily, our hero has been submerged back into the world of Bogart and Hawks.

He’s tasked with sneaking a group of Chinese passengers into American water illegally. However, following an altercation with his contractor (Victor Lee Seung), with Ms. Charles (Neal) and his mate Wesley (Juano Hernandez) aboard, he backs out leaving the Chinese behind. He’s escaped for now, his mores still intact.

But that doesn’t help him when he gets home. The Coast Guard soon confiscate his livelihood. His wife takes on work at home to try to compensate and he has one last chance to save his boat from being taken away from him in order to make ends meet. He feels compelled to take a second job bringing him back into cahoots with the same cruddy opportunist named Ducan, albeit reluctantly.

It’s in these dire straights where it becomes evident The Breaking Point is on the same moral plane as The Bicycle Thief (1946), where our protagonist is forced to make horrible decisions, all for the sake of his family. Should we blame him for the deadly finale that follows? It’s so difficult to enact decisive judgment.

Surely Patricia Neal has the flashy role because she’s the flirtatious blonde who’s never tied down and seems ready to get with anyone. But Phyllis Thaxter, even as she competes with the other woman, dying her hair in an attempt to win back her husband’s affection, has a softer more vulnerable tremor in her voice that feels so very transparent.

When we look into her eyes and see her get angry with her husband for not throwing in the towel and taking up a life on her father’s farm, the concern there is so very real. We understand it because it’s plaintive and deceptively unprepossessing. Because there are deep wells of beauty inside of her making the film’s romantic dynamics that much more intriguing.

John Garfield maintains the working-class persona he always seemed to flaunt so easily but here he’s surrounded by a family — two daughters and a loving wife, making his struggle all the more relatable.

He’s also a loving father bringing his daughters trinkets from his trips, cradling them in his arms affectionately, and slipping them change so they can go to the picture show again. The same goes for his wife. Even as they struggle and fight fairly regularly, over the kitchen table, there are other moments where he makes his love and faithfulness supremely evident. He compliments her looks and the new hairstyle she’s trying after the girls criticize it.

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Because the one thing The Breaking Point is not is a story of infidelity. Sure, it comes close on multiple occasions with Neal playing the tantalizing siren but Garfield unreservedly loves his wife. He’s honest with her in that sense, even as he keeps other secrets on the side. He thinks it’s a way to protect his family and his friends. The waters of the film are undoubtedly choppy, even perilous; that’s partially what makes the solid rock of the marriage at its core all the more refreshing.

Any relationship with a firm foundation is predicated on transparency. There’s no other way if you don’t want to harm your spouse and push them further and further away. I admire The Breaking Point deeply for this unflinching portrayal of marriage that, while not always polished, feels inherently real.

4.5/5 Stars

The Sea Wolf (1941)

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“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” – John Milton in Paradise Lost

Though some noir film layered in London fog is probably up for contention, otherwise, there’s arguably no movie murkier than this atmospheric sea-faring delight from Michael Curtiz. But what puts it above and beyond some of its contemporaries, especially swashbucklers like a Black Swan, has to do with a variability and surprising depth of characterization for what feels like such a minor vehicle.

From the framework of Jack London’s novel, screenwriter Robert Rossen has cleverly repurposed the material and made it thoroughly well-suited for the cast at hand, expanding the roles for his stars. For most of its running time, in fact, the story is aboard the ominously named vessel, “The Ghost,” while maintaining an unwavering level of intensity.

Certainly the aforementioned climate plays into it because it can exude a level of impending menace. Still, you can only get so far on that. There needs to be legitimate emotional resonance and some amount of real even complex conflict at the core if a glorified chamber piece like this is to stay afloat. Thankfully, due to its characters, it does. At any rate, we are provided several fascinating figures to try and comprehend.

John Garfield is one of them, a fiery sailor named George Leach who is on the run and he doesn’t care where he ends up. In his case, he winds up a lowly cabin boy. Again, he doesn’t care.  Meanwhile, Ida Lupino is escaped from a woman’s reformatory and seeks the corroboration of a fiction writer named (van Weyden) as it ends up, their voyage is ill-fated following a collision that sets off a deluge of water leaving them hopelessly shipwrecked.

In the aftermath, they are picked up by the schooner “The Ghost,”  its tyrannical captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) leading a crew of no-good and hard-bitten seamen. Barry Fitzgerald excites as the knife-toting cook who’s as ornery as you’ve ever seen the plucky Irishman. The writer is brought on as cabin boy given the rude awakening that the captain has no designs to drop him off onshore. His vocation and unwavering monotone are perfect for conveying this impartial point of view for the benefit of the audience. Meanwhile, John Garfield embittered with a chip on his shoulder is forced to take on harder labor and his anger smolders against everyone.

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The girl, Ms. Webster (Lupino) is deathly sick and the swacked and constantly unstable doctor (Gene Lockhart) seems to be of little help. His nerves as a physician look completely shot. By some miracle, he’s able to get sober enough to nurse the lady back to health, of course, when she makes her first public appearance looking to be the picture of propriety, the seafaring men are quick to see through her. She’s another unwanted sea rat just like all of them.

It’s plain to see she’s not about to earn any favors and the same goes for the other newly acquired deckhands. They have few rights as the sea captain runs the ship with a dictatorial hand. In all affairs he controls everything and he can be a ruthless taskmaster with his boys carrying out his every order with a rowdy mania, even turning against their own when given a chance.

However, although Wolf is a tough man, he nevertheless has an inscrutable side well-read in Milton and knowing a past of innumerable hardship. It’s these very traits that make van Weyden crucial as someone who is able to get closer than the others in order to try and tease out who Larsen really is.

A mass of contradictions, with a brain and a need for dignity in a harsh world but he also has a vengeful brother hanging over him, avowing to blow him to smithereens. If there is any regret in Larsen, he’s resolutely set his course and rarely looks back, making sure to maintain his supremacy over his men in all circumstances. His philosophy is purely self-serving.

But even he begins to crack. The film is laden with claustrophobic and seasick-inducing interiors depicting living hell on the waves with Larsen lording over it with an iron fist. Of course, with mutiny afoot instigated by Leach, finally able to exercise his lust for authority, there’s bound to be drama, even as he begins to carry a torch for Ruth.

Because later he, Ms. Webster, and van Weyden look to escape only to have their provisions sabotaged by Larsen, and “The Ghost” is ultimately ambushed by its mortal enemy. The hourglass is running out. But even as the captain goes down with his ship, a near pitiful figure now, he looks to take as many others down with him as he can. In opposition to such selfishness, a contrasting force of sacrifice is called for.

4/5 Stars

Note: The cut I watched was the shortened 1947 cut. The restored cut was reissued in 2017 at its full length of 1 hour and 40 minutes. This was the theatrical cut before it was edited to fit on a double bill with another Curtiz picture The Sea Hawk (1941).

 

Four Daughters (1938)

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The entire packaging of this Warner Bros. film includes director Michael Curtiz, screenwriter Julius Epstein, composer Max Steiner, and Claude Rains all who (not unsurprisingly) would have their hand in that revered classic Casablanca (1942).

Here the Lane Sisters are joined in their quartet by Gale Page with Claude Rains playing the musical patriarch of his family who has trained his daughters up to be an orchestra right in his living room. He’s a belligerent but good-willed father with all his show of bluster merely a facade to hide a heart of pure gold. The role slightly subverts many of Rains’ typically even-keeled gentlemen.

Most of these opening sequences draw up just how quaint and delightful they all are together and what a perfect little life they share as the men begin to show up in their lives to call on them. Isn’t love grand? That’s what we might be prompted to surmise is the film’s main theme.

Four Daughters teeters perilously on the edge of being insufferably schmaltzy to its core and yet it seems that the arrival of John Garfield and the insertion of his character into this idyllic world of giggling girls and small-town romance is just enough to save this story and make into something worth remembering.

Mickey Boyd (Garfield) walks into their home as an acerbic outsider who thrums his nose at the picture-perfect American family in their quintessential American home but he also has a gift for the piano and as musicians themselves, that’s an instant point of connection. Furthermore, he’s come into town as a favor to his old colleague Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn) who happens to be a close family friend and maybe one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met, either onscreen or off.

Still, Mickey is a tough one to crack but that doesn’t keep the maternal Aunt Etta (May Robson) or vivacious young Ann (Priscilla Lane) from trying their best to figure him out. In fact, Mickey becomes a bit of a pet project for Ann as she looks to slowly transform him into an honest to goodness genial human being. She does a fairly good job at it too as he is brought into the fold of the family for every subsequent round of holiday festivities.

The second act proves to be the most potent and whether or not the turn of events are truly probable does not detract from how affecting these sequences turn out to be. And ironically, at the center of it all are Mickey and Ann. The man who has always been the outsider looking in and the youngest sister full of playful precociousness. He is the one who helps her see things as they actually are and she, in turn, continually spruces up his life and to use an inane phrase, she “turns his frown upside down.”

But I think that’s the key to the final act of Four Daughters. It’s dramatic but it loses that almost sickening layer of sugarcoating and shocks everyone within the frame of the film back to the reality of the world with one tragic event or two events depending on what you deem the tragedy to be. This doesn’t simply feel like a mere play for our emotions — though it might be partially this — but it’s really a bit of a representation of what life actually throws our way.

That’s why Mickey is by far the most important character in this picture and he’s so necessary for it to be anything more than typical Hollywood fare because in some sense John Garfield makes that man into a real person. He’s not necessarily a bad fellow. In fact, we kind of like him because he seems a bit sardonic, frank, and he’s not going out trying to be something that he’s not.

True, the Hollywood happy ending is tacked on as we come to expect but perhaps in the closing moments, as the sisters look through the drawing room window and Ann is back to her gate-swinging ways with her beau as before, we can gain some satisfaction in the moment. Not simply because all is right in this little universe but the family went through trials and now are better for it — more attuned to the world. They are no longer simply four daughters or soon to be four wives. They are four women.

The film was dressed up in Technicolor in Young at Heart (1954) with Doris Day and Frank Sinatra and Sinatra elevated that film much as Garfield does here. His tune “All the Way” while having no bearing on the plot is nevertheless a memorable number. I have nothing against Mr. Lemp’s taste in music nor his disdain for the contemporary bilge of his day but I rather like the crooners myself.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Review Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James_Cagney_in_Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_trailer“My father thanks you, My Mother Thanks you, My Sister Thanks you, and I Thank you.” – James Cagney as George M. Cohan

I write this on Yankee Doodle Dandy’s 75 Anniversary on Memorial Day and I can say with much regret in my heart that it’s probably not nearly as resonant now as it was back in 1942. Perhaps, as it should be, because we are not living in the thick of WWII in a recently post-Pearl Harbor society. This was a film meant for a very particular cultural moment and it functions as such.

We look at the musical numbers and some are impressive routines with a full array of song and dance sprinkled throughout but there’s nothing outstandingly eye-popping about any of it. It’s true that this musical biography does suffer from a bit of Biopic Syndrome. By now we have been inundated with so many renditions that this version of George M. Cohan’s life is hardly revolutionary.

At best it’s a beaming tribute to an American icon with a bit of palatable wartime propaganda that never does anything unusual nor does it attempt to. At worst you could call Yankee Doodle Dandy overlong with a stiff script that lacks a lot of invention and shows more and more chinks in its armor over the excessive run time. But like Cohan himself, it’s an unabashed flag-waver and in that arena alone it does do some justice to its hero.

Certainly, none of these initial assessments can take away from the great appeal of the main players. More on James Cagney later but for now let’s just say he is incomparable and leave it at that. But we also have the estimable Walter Huston who had a notable career in his own right before being slightly overshadowed by his son John. In Yankee Doodle Dandy he plays the patriarch of the Cohan family, married to a lovely and talented woman (Rosemary De Camp) who is his partner and equal in both wedded life and on the stage. They are loyal All-Americans and they raise up their son and daughter to love their line of work and their country just as they do.

Thus, the Cohans are born as a collective entity, precocious Josie (Jeanne Cagney) and her ever cocksure brother George (James Cagney) who has a big head to go along with a load of talent. While his attitude gets him ostracized, his persistence as a songwriter ultimately earns him success after he unwittingly joins forces with another struggling writer Sam Harris (Richard Whorf). Somehow together they find a winning formula that for decades thenceforth makes George M. Cohan into a household name and subsequently an American legend. He is the undisputed king of unabashed, feel-good, good old-fashioned entertainment.

America’s favorite wartime ingenue Joan Leslie falls easily into the role of the love of George’s life, Mary, the impressionable young gal who fell for him at an early age and stayed by his side as the years rolled ever onward. Everything else changed but her love and faithfulness remained steadfast. With Mary by his side, she sees him through a string of successes, a few minor failures, the birth of WWI with the sinking of the Lusitania, and even the inevitable deaths of his kin. When it’s all said and done, he’s christened by FDR himself with a Congressional Medal as one of the great patriots capable of catalyzing the American Public with nationalistic fervor. So he serves a very important purpose on the Homefront.

The fact that Cohan’s life was practically born and lived out on the stage makes it perfectly suited for a musical adaptation allowing Michael Curtiz to seamlessly segue between vaudeville and Broadway routines and the formative moments that make up George’s life. They all fit together in a fairly straightforward manner that nevertheless is bolstered above all by the talent.

But the opening and closing framing device is unforgivably corny and is probably hampered most by a President Roosevelt lookalike who is so artificial it makes the genuine vivacity of James Cagney all the more disarming. It works the other way too. Cagney feels like he’s acting opposite a lifeless mannequin. And it’s true that as he always seemed to have the habit of doing Jimmy Cagney steals the whole picture.

He had left the gangster fare that had made him famous behind and in pictures such as Strawberry Blonde (1941) and Yankee Doodle Dandy he was given a true chance to strut his stuff and what dynamic stuff it is. Now I’m not much of a dance connoisseur so I have no reference point on where Cagney’s dancing could possibly begin to stack up to the likes of Astaire or Kelly, men who also performed their own choreography. Still, if anything, Cagney’s feet are constantly lively and self-assured as is his entire performance.

He seems like the perfect man to embody Cohan himself an Irish-American who started out as a song and dance man on the stage and whose blood ran red, white, and blue. First and foremost, he is a performer and his performance turns Yankee Doodle into something special, despite its various shortcomings.

Curtiz is a highly capable director but Cagney is the one we have to thank. Because while the film is never daring he always is and my estimation of him grows exponentially every time I see him act. Some performers have the knack of making every scene they’re in better by doing something exceptional that you remember — something that really catches your eye whether minor or grandiose. You only have to watch him tap his way down the White House stairwell to know James Cagney is one of the special ones, no question.

4/5 Stars

Casablanca (1942): 75th Anniversary Review

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When someone inquires if I consider Casablanca one of my favorite movies, I don’t quite know how to respond. Yes, I do love this film passionately but I feel as if Casablanca is more deeply America’s favorite classic movie. It is not for me to call my own and I will gladly share a joint appreciation for it. Because it’s a film for all of us. As it should be. It’s the perfect articulation and expression of that former Hollywood that existed during the studio age as brought to us by Michael Curtiz.

When we are finally allowed to enter into Rick’s Cafe Americain, it almost feels like hallowed ground. It’s a mythical place that never existed in reality and yet feels so immersive to us as an audience. Curtiz moves through the space with such intent that it makes us completely involved with every person his camera settles on. This is a picture for romantics and sentimentalists to be sure but it caters to those with a cynical edge too. It suggests a deceitful world of pickpockets, unscrupulous officials, and of course, Nazis.

The political tides of the times are reflected in that cinematic bastion of a man Rick Blaine (Bogart). His foreign policy is that he sticks his neck out for no one. But that’s only on the surface. That’s the beauty of the character. There’s a sensitivity and a sacrificial nature that wells up deep inside him, hidden from view. Tortured and embittered as he is, that is not the last word.

There’s also an undeniable undercurrent to the film. Yes, this is not reality. As enveloping as it is, this is wholly a Warner Bros. aesthetic but moreover there’s a sense that the emotions that deluge over Casablanca are very real.

Aside from Bogart and the lovely, incomparable Ingrid Bergman, our cast is made up of a plethora of emigres, men and women, who fled the Nazis for this reason or that. Whether they were Jewish or had different political affiliations or just couldn’t bear to live under such an oppressive regime.

Director Michael Curtiz was originally from Hungary and in him, we find someone who totally understood the plight of those fleeing and the context of the moment where Casablanca was only a pitstop for America. Because take the picture out of its context and something would be lost. Firmly plant it in the era and you have blessed the production with something enduringly special.

Furthermore, in the scene where Lazlo (Paul Henreid) calls on the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out the German’s proud merrimaking it ceases to be a mere scene in a film but becomes an event that swells with real emotions. You can see it in the very body language, the tears in the eyes, and the fervor that comes over everyone. Madeleine Lebeau (the film’s last surviving cast member who passed away last year) singing defiantly, with the tears freely flowing. No longer acting but pure feelings incarnate.

When so many other minority characters make me cringe in pictures of the 30s and 40s, Sam, the piano man (Dooley Wilson), remarkably rarely does. That’s because he’s endowed with a certain autonomy attributed to him in part by Blaine. They are partners, friends, and they watch out for each other.

His singing holds the love story together. Like many of the film’s greatest faces, he’s not a mere sideshow attraction. There’s a necessity to his characterization that adds another dimension to the world that has been conjured up on the Warner Bros. lot. What would Casablanca be without Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sazall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, etc.? It would lose so much color — so much definition.

Another joy of the picture after you see it too many times to count is the continued relish of the script, waiting for your favorite lines only to be taken with new quips that you never picked up on before. For me, most lines of this nature come from the wonderfully amoral and yet completely personable Captain Renault (Claude Rains). But there’s also so much going on around the edges of the frame. One of my favorites involves the young woman who fled from Bulgaria with her husband. The young lady is played by Jack Warner’s step-daughter Joy Page.

Here we see a relationship that mirrors that of Rick and Elsa in a way that only becomes apparent later on. Because she is a woman desperate to get to America with her impoverished husband. He is trying to win money gambling but it’s a desperate even futile situation.

She loves him so much, she is willing to try and use her own beauty and the influence of another man, Inspector Renault to help the man she truly loves. There’s so much subtext to the scene written with the production codes in mind and the sincerity is immediately evident even if some of the import can be lost on us. The same can be said for the foreshadowing.

Part of what makes the picture’s final act work is the fact that Lazlo is such a decent human being. He loves his wife so much, he’s willing to have Blaine take her to safety by using the Letters of Transit if need be. Thus, this dichotomy is set up and Rick must make a decision. He must do the thinking for both of them but that request from Lazlo saves Rick’s reputation no matter the decision that he makes. We know that either might be right. Even though deep in our hearts, there’s only one denouement we want.

Did I even need to write this review? Certainly not but it’s more for my sake than anyone else’s. Casablanca is a dear friend of mine and after 75 years it still comes up smelling like roses. Its themes are timeless in the sense that it allows romance to be its guiding light while still tempering it with the disillusionment and licentiousness that often is so prevalent in this world of ours. That makes its bittersweet interludes ring with a certain deep-seated truth that never comes off as fake. It’s as evocative and witty now as it was in 1942. Perhaps even more so.

5/5 Stars

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

angelswithdirtyfaces-theatricalposterWhaddya hear, whaddya say ~ Jimmy Cagney as Rocky Sullivan

If he hadn’t been on the stage and screen, it’s easy to get the sense that James Cagney, born and bred on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan could have easily been a gangster. And it’s true that in films like Public Enemy and White Heat he embodied gangsters for ensuing generations solidifying his own legend.

Angles with Dirty Faces features another stellar performance as Rocky Sullivan, but what makes it truly unique are the intertwining worlds of faith and crime that meet and ultimately provide the major conflict in the narrative. It’s at these crosswords — the moral fabric of the film — where things get fascinating and to understand those things it’s necessary to see where Angel with Dirty Faces opens.

Two young hoodlums get caught in the act of snitching from a train car and in the ensuing chase one gets nabbed by the cops while the other slips away from their clutches to live another day. This succinct scene is a fitting reflection of all that happens thereafter. The one fellow will grow up to be the notorious gangster extraordinaire Rocky Sullivan who will be at odds with the authorities from his first moments in juvie to his final days.

Meanwhile, Jerry (Pat O’Brien) becomes a local priest who makes it his life’s work to reform the young men in the community who are more than likely destined for the life of Rocky and his fellow gangsters. Through a certain amount of kindness and quiet strength, he attempts to mold the boys through constructive activities like basketball, choir, and other extracurriculars. However, the bad boys (the real life Dead End Kids ensemble, less actors than personified hellraisers) are not quite swayed by his regimen, more content rough-housing, causing mayhem, and idolizing their rebellious hero the great Rocky Sullivan.

When he finally gets out of his stint in prison, Rocky has some choice words for his crooked lawyer (Humphrey Bogart) who hands over a load of cash to save his neck although he’s not looking to be swindled. But although he continues to have his hand in the local corruption and crime scenes, Rocky still maintains his ties with his old friend while renting a room from the girl he used to rib, the now stunning Laury Martin (Ann Sheridan). Here the core relationship between Rocky and Jerry becomes paramount as Jerry vows to tackle corruption in the city with the help of a local paper, even if his old buddy gets in the way.

So Jerry begins his full-fledged crusade against vice because he sees it as a threat to his parish — made up of the impressionable boys in his stead. But just as crucial is the boy’s idol worship, namely of Rocky. This is Jerry’s final goal to bring their idol tumbling down and it doesn’t involve simply destroying the aura surrounding a gangster — it involves two old friends making one final promise. The crime syndicate is thrown into an uproar as Rocky is wanted for murder, cornered, and finally apprehended.  Oh how the mighty have fallen, although he’s not about to go yellow because that’s the only thing he has left–his own bullish sense of moxie.

Still, Jerry asks him to imbue a different kind of courage (Not the courage or heroics of bravado but the kind that you, me, and God know about). And as the electric chair looms in front of Rocky as an arbiter of justice, you could easily make the claim that this is his modern-day cross with him as the martyr. But this gets into the ultimate dilemma where everything begins to break down. Either Rocky committed his final act out of undying affection for an old friend (and not remorse) or more feebly still he was not repentant at all but was, on the contrary, legitimately groveling in the face of death.

The first time seeing this film I mistakenly mistook Rocky’s actions as heroic in the end because as our protagonist that’s what we like to project onto him but it simply does not line up. The way he’s so belligerent before breaking down as he gets ready to meet his maker. The way the priest looks on with tears in his eyes, newspaper men too awestruck to jot down a single note. I mistook Cagney’s astonishing acting for Rocky’s own showmanship. However, the more astounding conclusion is that Rocky is hardly high and mighty in the end. His rough veneer is equally easy to shatter as his being is brought to the ultimate low, death.

It reflects the moral ambiguity of man that these angels with dirty faces are not in the singular sense but the sum of man in his plurality. We are all prone to evil just as we are all capable of good. But we can hardly save ourselves just as we are not always wholly good or wholly evil. The best we can do is make the way better for other people. If this film is any indication sometimes it’s extremely difficult to parse through the differences between the altruism versus the evil versus just plain cowardice.

Films about friends on diverging paths have continued to exist from Cry of the City to Mystic River but Angels with Dirty Faces is arguably one of the most compelling. Once again, Cagney steals the film with his usual no holds barred approach.  It electrifies the screen like very few others, making Angels with Dirty Faces an undisputed gangster classic and one of his very best.

Furthermore, the often discounted Michael Curtiz shows his versatility with the foremost of Warner Bros. winning craftsmen including directors William A. Wellman and Raoul Walsh. Notably, each man paired with Cagney with great results, because, after all, he is without question the king of the gangsters.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

the adventures of robin hood 1As a young boy, no hero was greater in my mind’s eye than Robin Hood and only Star Wars held a more honored spot in my childhood imagination. Because, to this day, Robin of Locksley remains the quintessential hero of mythical lore. Part historical truth mostly canonized myth and that’s the beauty of him. We can believe in him — see how he was in so many ways real but in the same instance larger than life.

To his credit, Erroll Flynn does a surprisingly phenomenal job in portraying the legendary outlaw in Lincoln green with a bit of British (Australian…) cheekiness, as well as bravado and charm. In fact, the film is full of so many wonderful elements from its engaging action sequences full of timeless spectacle and a plethora of characters who come right off the pages of the greatest Robin Hood narratives. Will Scarlett, Much the Miller, Friar Tuck and of course Little John still hold a great deal of esteem in my heart. While there are no men more villainous and corrupted than the likes of Prince John (Claude Rains), The Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone).

Meanwhile, Michael Curtiz took the reigns of the film and makes it a lively swashbuckler that revels in a sense of good fun and that starts with Flynn’s performance radiating out from there. While this early use of three-strip Technicolor only serves to add yet another layer of elegance and vibrancy to the film’s look. It truly was made for color and every shade of Lincoln green and every bit of medieval opulence proves to be a feather in the film’s cap. It looks absolutely stunning and the same goes for young Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian.

Olivia_de_Havilland_and_Errol_Flynn_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailerFrom what I know from Robin Hood folklore, specifically Howard Pyle’s seminal edition, the film is surprisingly true to many of the origin stories and tales that have long since proliferated. As an audience, we become privy to the first meetings of Robin and the formidable Little John (Alan Hale) who lays him out in the local stream after a bout with quarterstaffs. Then, in another instance, Robin provokes the portly Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette) who happens to be a master swordsman and a lover of good food and drink. Still, other vignettes include Robin’s successful masquerade as a lowly archer who wins the grand prize at the Sheriff of Nottingham’s Archery Tournament.

Of course, the most thrilling set pieces occur in Nottingham Castle, initially when Robin brazenly drops in on Prince John and his cronies bearing a deer over his shoulders. Admittedly I have Star Wars on the mind, but this sequence is rather reminiscent of Luke wandering into Jabba’s Palace.

Then, the climax comes later with the return of King Richard and Robin’s assault on the castle full of stellar swordplay and general chaos. The duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone is especially thrilling and it holds up well even today because there is something so satisfying in watching them thrust and feint back and forth.

the adventures of robin hood 2For me, the reason very few heroes surpass Robin Hood is based on his innumerable qualities. He’s a superior fighter with bow, sword or staff. He’s blessed with a wonderful wit and impressive leadership capabilities. He wins over the girl with his charm. He gets to live out in the forest with his best friends, eating great food. But most of all, he’s a rebel with a heart of gold, robbing the rich to feed the poor.

He’s an embodiment of all things that a little boy dreams of as a kid and in many ways, he’s a fairy tale, but the kind of fairy tale that a boy readily conjures up in his own imagination. The villains are formidable and the action is unmistakable, but it’s all in good fun. That’s why the Adventures of Robin Hood remains an enduring folk tale of the cinema. Its hero transcends a single medium. Because he lives in the heart of many a young lad long after the title credits have rolled.

5/5 Stars

Review: Mildred Pierce (1945)

mildredpierce1Mildred Pierce is a hybrid between two genres in a way. It most certainly could be categorized as a weepie 1940s melodrama, a so-called “woman’s picture,” and yet it has the undeniable framing devices of a typical film-noir. It’s unique in other ways as well. It features a strong, independent woman as the lead, the eponymous Mildred Pierce and her aspirations and the struggles in her life become the focal point of this story.

Before any gun was fired or a dead body was found at a beach house or any of that happened, Mildred was a stay at home housewife with two daughters and a husband. It becomes all too clear that all is not right in the Pierce household as Bert becomes annoyed with Mildred, who spends so much time doting over eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). It’s as if she needs to earn Veda’s love and Bert realizes the issue early on. They separate and soon after they watch their youngest daughter die of pneumonia suddenly.

What happens next is Mildred’s big break. She starts out all alone and discouraged before finding a job as a waitress, and ultimately, starting up her own restaurant with the help of the hapless Wally Fay (Jack Carson). She finds a loyal friend and employee in Ida (Eve Arden) and a rejuvenated love life thanks to the socialite Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott).

Veda on her part is ecstatic to finally have a life of nice things with the stream of income coming in from her mother, however, she still does not approve of her mother working in the restaurant business. Mother is so Philistine after all.

Thus, despite all the work and effort, she has put into holding onto her one remaining daughter, Veda begins to drift farther and farther away from Mildred until a fight causes Veda to leave home. Most people would say good riddance, but Mildred Pierce is not like that. She has an unhealthy, almost obsessive need for her daughter’s affection. She will do anything to get her back and most of it has to do with giving Veda stuff.

She is far from happy but finally marries Beragon, because she thinks it might bring Veda back to her home. It works but what she doesn’t know is that she is getting forced out of her own company by Bergaon. That evening she found her gun and then Beragon got murdered on the premises of his beach house.

Back in the station, the shadowy noir sensibilities are still present and Mildred abruptly finishes up her tale. Except for the police investigator and the audience know better. That was not the end of the story. There’s one last cruel twist.

In my mind, Joan Crawford is rivaled only by Bette Davis in giving me the shivers, except in this film her eyes are so expressive, giving off emotion without her even saying anything. Within this film, I find the character dynamics and gender conflict to be quite interesting and there are really 6 main characters we can look at:

Mildred: A strong woman who gains her independence the hard way by putting in work to earn her honest wage. She is not a bad person per se, but her weakness is an unhealthy love for her daughter, or rather, a need to have the affection of a girl who never can be satisfied. It leads to divorce, a loveless marriage and a lot of heartaches.

Veda is a little spoiled brat and most of the pain and problems in the film stem from her. She constantly plays on her mother’s emotions heartlessly and even goes so far as to steal her man. That is perhaps the ultimate slap in the face after all she has already done.

Ida: Along with Wally Fay, Ida is perhaps one of the more likable characters in the film, because she is a strong woman who also holds a lot of wit thanks to the performance of Eve Arden. She also utters the famous line that shines some light on the Veda situation (Alligators have the right idea. They eat their young).

Bert: Although he takes part in an affair and is not the perfect husband, I think Mildred and the audience realize how right he was. He saw all the drama with Veda coming, and he remained civil with Mildred through it all, continuing to look out for her.

Monte: He may not be a “villain,” but Beragon is ultimately another corrupt character who is driven by money and his social status. However, it is interesting to ponder whether it was his own avarice and playboy instincts that led him to do what he did, or was he wholly influenced by Veda?

Wally: Finally, we have Wally Fay played the always enjoyable Jack Carson. He too has his eye on Mildred, but although he can be forward and a little annoying, he ultimately looks out for her much like Bert. And yet to call him an angel would be an overstatement because he still has his own interests in mind.

That’s what makes these characters so fascinating since there are some obvious antagonists, but each character, at their core,  has faults. Thus, it makes sense that this film has melodrama brought on by familiar conflict and the like, only to descend down into the noirish world brought on by vice and greed. Whatever you label this film as, the fact of the matter is, it was a major hallmark for the fading Joan Crawford as well as the ever versatile director Michael Curtiz.

4.5/5 Stars

White Christmas (1954)

58e88-white_chrismas_filmMany times I feel like a broken record (this time playing a Christmas tune), but White Christmas is one of those classics that I never get tired of. It is so ingrained, so integral to my childhood memories, that I have difficulty analyzing it or finding fault.

Wonderful, visceral films stop being something that must be thought about and simply become an all out experience. That’s what White Christmas is for me. A full blown Christmas experience courtesy of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, director Michael Curtiz and of course Irving Berlin.

I mean this as a compliment, but at a basic level, I always thought of White Christmas as a Christmas-like version of Singin’ in the Rain. We have a talented and dashing leading man in Crosby (Bing Crosby) and his mischievous and hilarious partner in crime (Danny Kaye). They are never better than during their parody of the sister’s act (It’s a priceless gem of a moment). Although, there is constant chemistry throughout the film thanks to the bickering and back and forth between two buddies.  Similarly to Singin’ in the Rain, you also have big spectacles, lavish sets, great songs, dancing, and constant quotability. It brings out the most reluctant of crooners and even the guys with two left feet. But what about the story?

White Christmas follows those two war buddies as they make it big as a boffo double act. Along the way, they help out a pair of sisters as well as their washed-up former commander General Waverly (Dean Jagger), who owns an inn in snow-less Vermont. Although, it’s lacking in business,  it’s the perfect locale for matchmaking, acts of kindness, and misunderstandings courtesy of local innkeeper and resident eavesdropper Emma (Mary Wickes). But what we end up receiving is a joyous romance with plenty of Christmas cheer and sentiment to go around.


Bing Crosby’s pipes are as good as ever (“Count Your Blessings”) and Danny Kaye can make his voice crack like no other. Vera-Ella has a talented pair of legs and Rosemary Clooney can carry a tune in her own right opposite Crosby. Whether it’s “Snow,” “Sisters,” or the eponymous track, there’s so much to offer. Weather any slow sections and you will be rewarded thanks to the even-handed direction of Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), paired with the ever memorable compositions of Irving Berlin. Now go spend the holidays with your kith and kin. Vermont must be nice this time of year, all that snow.

4/5 Stars

Review: Casablanca (1942)

It was over 70 years ago that Casablanca hit the silver screen for the first time. All the main players are dead and gone now. The Golden Age of Hollywood, where pictures were being churned out with factory-like efficiency, has given way to a modern era of blockbusters. To borrow a quote from the movie, it doesn’t seem that one little film would “amount to a hill of beans” in our present world. Still, somehow Casablanca is beloved to this day, despite the numerous other films that have undoubtedly entered the black hole of film oblivion. It seemingly will not die and for good reason.

Considered one of the greatest films of all-time, this well-loved classic deserves to be here. It is the hallmark of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s careers. It also has one of the greatest scripts of all time, and it has achieved legendary status over the years. Many consider it purely the best film ever made and in all honesty, I would never try to refute that.
The film opens quickly and we are immersed in a world that is at the height of the Nazi terror, and many people are fleeing Europe by way of Casablanca. It is a treacherous place full of pickpockets, corrupt authorities, refugees, and naive tourists as well. Two German couriers have been murdered and some invaluable letters of transit have been stolen. That’s when we are first introduced to Rick’s Café Americain and its cynical proprietor Rick Blaine (Bogart).
A shady fellow named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) comes to Rick with the letters and asks Blaine to keep them for him. However, later that night Ugarte is taken into custody, and things begin to get even more complicated. Wanted resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is now in Casablanca, however, a Major Strasser has arrived from Germany to take him in. To top it off, Laszlo’s wife Ilsa (Bergman) was Blaine’s old flame in Paris and, needless to say, it didn’t end well.
Laszlo desperately needs the letters of transit to escape, and he inquires about them. Soon he is led to Blaine, but as Rick often admits he sticks his neck out for nobody. Knowing all too well that he is in danger, Laszlo still shows his defiance against his enemies by leading the people in a round of “La Marseillaise” and as a result, Rick’s is shut down.
All the memories of Paris begin flooding back, and then Ilsa confronts Rick in order to get the letters. This is possibly the most critical point in the film because this tense altercation ultimately renews the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. Rick asks her to trust him, and he begins to take things into his own hands. The results of his actions created one of the great romantic and cinematic moments in the history of film. The whole film leading up to this point hints at it, but Rick truly is a sentimentalist at heart. He can live with the notion that they will always have Paris and that leads him to commit a selfless act of love.
This film holds such a tremendous presence in movie history, and upon seeing the movie it makes complete sense what all the hype is about. What more could you want than Bogey, Bergman, Casablanca, and some of the greatest quotes ever uttered? Do not forget the corrupt, but nevertheless lovable French Captain Louis (Claude Rains), who delivers some terribly witty lines. Honestly, he may be my favorite character in the whole film, and that’s saying a lot!  Then, of course, there is the immortal tune of “As Time Goes By,” sung by Dooley Wilson which will forever be ingrained in film lore.
However, you also gain an appreciation for the other interesting characters of Casablanca, some comical, some sympathetic, and others despicable. We have a rogue gallery of everybody under the sun from Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, German soldiers, various guests, and all the staff at Rick’s Place. This movie has conflict and the uncertainty of war in practically every scene because at the time World War II was in full force. There are a broken romance and a forlorn hero who shows his courage in the end. As an audience, we come to realize the transformation of Rick into a truly great man. Ilsa on her part has the most radiant face I have ever seen.
 It is wonderful that Casablanca succeeds as entertainment despite the fact that it is not modern. In fact, part of its charm is the black and white cinematography that helps make Rick’s Café so atmospheric. It effectively makes each interior shot moodi34 and every romantic scene even more striking. I am very doubtful that they would ever be able to pull this film off in color. It just wouldn’t work.
You do not need explosions and violence either, only great characters and a story with both drama and humor to reel the audience in. Up until the final moments of the movie you are captivated the entire time. Then, fittingly, you are left with the two men walking off into the night with the words, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
In fact, with this film, my thoughts always go back to the script. Lines like “Here’s looking at you kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Round up the usual suspects” are so rampant that you cannot possibly remember them all, and I doubt there will ever be another film that is so immersed in American cultural lexicon. Still, many of my favorite lines in the film are those that get overshadowed by the more famous ones. That is the sign of an amazing film that never grows old. Even those who have not seen this classic film like to think they have, because the influence of Casablanca reaches everywhere. I guess I’m rather an idealist myself so I would like to think that even if 70 more years pass, we’ll always have Casablanca.