The Window (1949)

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The main conceit is just too delightful to ignore. It posits the following dramatic question: What if the boy who cried wolf saw a murder being committed immediately afterward? Because that’s precisely what happens to little Tommy Woodry.

He’s one of those imaginative little boys who likes playing Cowboys and Indians while telling his contemporaries that his family has a large ranch out west where they raise horses. It all seems perfectly innocent except in close confines such stories take on a life of their own. Soon the landlord assumes that the Woodrys will be moving out shortly.

It’s not just this incident either but Tommy has a history of dreaming up all sorts of stories and wanting to teach their son good old-fashioned American values and honesty, his parents say there will be consequences if he lies again.

What happens next is so absurd and outrageous Tommy is sunk even before he’s begun. He spies the upstairs neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Kellerson (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) take part in a grisly murder. He does the fairly logical thing and goes to wake up his mother to let her know what he witnessed. But it’s not so logical based on what has already happened.

First, she dismisses his stories as a bad dream but after he goes down to the police station to get them involved, his mother is even more alarmed. Mr. Woodry comes back home from the night shift to hear about his son’s behavior and as much as he doesn’t like to do it, he does the fatherly thing and punishes the boy.

He’s meant to stay in his room and that wouldn’t be so bad if his father didn’t work nights and his mother wasn’t called away to take care of her ailing kinfolk. Because the Kellersons know he’s been snooping around and they’re not about to be found out — especially not by an inquisitive kid. When they figure out what he knows, he’s little better than a sitting duck.

If it wasn’t obvious from the outset the picture sets itself up for a claustrophobic finale that’s quite the piece of entertainment. Rear Window is one of my favorite films and it’s hard not to draw up comparisons between the two pictures because they both utilize their limited space well and allow us to get inside the plight of our protagonist in a way that’s excruciatingly disconcerting.

For L.B. Jeffries it’s the fact that he’s trapped in a wheelchair with a purported murderer living right across the courtyard from him. In this picture, it’s that little Tommy has his freedom revoked and finds himself made prisoner in his own home with his parent’s gone because they are angry with his constant fits of fibbing.

But more so than Rear Window which is a fairly opulent picture, The Window suggest the impoverished state of the characters at the fore, living on the Lower East Side as they do. Their lives are not glamorous at home or at work. They have a tough time scraping by and it shows in their dress and how they present themselves every day.

Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale do a fine job as Tommy’s parents because they feel like decent folks, generally humble and wanting to raise their son the best way. That doesn’t make their immune to parental blunders but, nevertheless, they love their boy.

Likewise, Paul Stewart is a bit menacing and thuggish veiling it with a good-natured facade while Ruth Roman normally remembered for fairly upright roles is cast as a wife who seems more frightened by her circumstances than anything else. She’s hardly a villain but that doesn’t make her any less complicit in this whole affair.

Bobby Driscoll was on loan out from Disney and he embodies the precocious nature of a boy in a way that’s completely believable and at the very least compelling.  It’s a wonderful live-action performance to fit right alongside his voice work before his life took a tragic dive into drug addiction.

It might be an unnecessary connection to make but director Ted Tetzlaff was formerly a cinematographer and one of the films attributed to him was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) from only a few years before. Hitch would come out with his home thriller in 1954. I’m still partial to the later film — it’s one of my personal favorites — but there’s no doubt The Window proves itself as a harrowing family thriller in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars

Side Street (1950)

 

SideStreetposterThough director Anthony Mann later made a name for himself with a string of Westerns pairing him with James Stewart, it’s just as easy to enjoy him for some of the diverting crime pictures he helped craft. Everything from Raw Deal (1948) to T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and of course this little number.

Another simple pleasure gleaned from Side Street is the second teaming of the two young starlets Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell who made such an impression together in Nicholas Ray’s sensitive drama They Drive By Night (1948)

We begin this particular picture with a flyover of New York City and the “Voice of God” narration comes off as another installment of The Naked City (1947) because it too takes to the streets, shot on location in the city of a thousand stories with thousands more waiting to happen.

There’s something engrossing in this style of storytelling which takes interest in several seemingly unextraordinary, unconnected individuals and then over the course of less than an hour and a half slowly ties together all the threads of their lives into one cohesive narrative.

There are some calling cards of crime pictures including sleazy extortion, a body fished out of the East River, and the police who are working the beats of the case and trying to keep the frenzy of journalists at bay. Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw head up the police procedural angle.

But the man we come to know the best is unassuming postman Joe Norson (Granger), who becomes extra jumpy after unwittingly stealing thousands of dollars when he thought he only swiped a few bucks to buy his wife a mink coat. He’s just a poor, small, unimportant little man in the scheme of things. An “Average Joe” if you pardon the expression. He’s not supposed to be embroiled in such a story. It’s a bigger can of worms than he could ever imagine and there are consequences.

Other people of interest are wealthy businessmen, crooked lawyers, cabbies, bar owners, bank tellers,  journalists, cops on the verge of retirement, nightclub singers, and at least a few ex-cons, all the usual standard bearers.

Joe’s wife is in the latest stages of her pregnancy and shortly her baby is on the way but her husband has made up a fanciful story about a new out-of-town job that’s loaded him with cash. Of course, she has no idea what’s going on and nor does he. He asks a near stranger, the man who runs the local bar to hold the cash for him. He says it’s a nightgown for his wife.

But Joe’s not a criminal. His guilty conscience is too much for him so he goes back to the office to plead with them to let him return the money. Of course, they have as much right to it as he does. What follows is a cat and mouse chase across the city. First, some thugs tail Joe looking for the $30,000. Then, Joe and ex-convict George Garsell look for the bar owner who has all but disappeared and conveniently the money’s gone too.

As the police are also involved, they want both men, believing they are complicit in different murders that have been committed. Joe has just enough time with his wife to explain his predicament. Still, he got himself into this mess and he holds the belief that he is the only one who can make it right.

What follows is a culmination of all the events thus far as all the character arcs begin to bump up against each other. Namely, Joe, a local nightclub singer (Jean Hagen), and the last man that Joe wanted to see, Garsell himself.

Side Street closes out with a lively car chase near The Third Avenue El that predates many of the revered classics from Bullitt (1968) to The French Connection (1971) years later. The full weight of the title’s meaning, subsequently makes itself increasingly clear as squads of police cars look to close in on the criminal’s getaway taxi. Of course, what makes it compelling is the fact that Joe is right in the thick of it all to the very last avenue…with a loaded gun pointed at his head. Thankfully there are no speed bumps in this one.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Speedy (1928)

speedy1It’s hard not to appreciate Harold Lloyd. His life was less tumultuous than Buster Keaton and during the 1920s he was more prolific than Charlie Chaplin. So if you look back at his career you can easily argue that he was not playing third fiddle to the other silent titans. He was their equal in many respects, and it’s only over the years that he’s fallen behind the others. But he deserves acknowledgment at the very least and his comedies such as Speedy make his case with rousing gimmicks and gags aplenty.

The film opens with Pop Dillon, the last of the horse-drawn streetcar drivers. He’s a kindly old man who lives with his radiant granddaughter Jane, who is faithfully by his side. But a corrupt railroad magnate is trying to buy him out, and he’s ready to go to great lengths to get what he wants. It’s about what we expect to happen, so the real entertainment factor comes with how we get there.

Enter Speedy (Harold Lloyd) a baseball-loving soda-jerk turned crazy cab driver and the sweetheart of Jane. It’s true that he starts out working the coffee counter with great dexterity while keeping up to date with the latest box scores of Murder’s Row. However, after a major blunder, he knows he won’t have a job when he gets back. Rather than stew in his misfortune, Speedy heads out on a Sunday afternoon in Coney Island with Jane. This proves to be a wonderful aside rather like in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and there are a lot of great little gags being pulled by Lloyd, and others occur unwittingly. He tricks a myriad of folks with a dollar bill on a string and a crab in the pocket causes a lot of chaos. He even picks up a new unwanted friend in a hungry dog. But perhaps most of all the sequence is a fun nostalgia trip to the fair, showing off all the attractions circa 1928. It’s an eye-opening experience, and it still looks like quite a lot of fun.

speedy3The other section of the story begins with Speedy garnering a job as a cab driver, but he has an unfortunate aptness for picking up tickets. He does, however, pick up some precious cargo in Babe Ruth (playing himself) and it leads to a wonderfully raucous ride to Yankee Stadium courtesy of Speedy’s crazy maneuvering through the streets of New York. Even Lou Gehrig sneaks in on the fun with a wry grin.

As the last order of business Speedy must save Pop’s cart from utter extinction and what follows is a rip-roaring brawl in the streets between the young thugs and the old-timers. Instead of being suspended from a clock, Lloyd must race against it to get Pop’s stolen livelihood back to its track in time. Once more he puts his madcap driving to good use.

Speedy lives up to its name and certainly justifies the popularity of Harold Lloyd. Its strengths include a plethora of sight gags that play off the audience’s sense of dramatic irony. Put them in the hands of such a nerdish icon and it spells true comedic gold. It’s Lou Gehrig approved no less.

4/5 Stars

Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

taxidriver1Well. Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It’s full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. ~ Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle is an American icon representing anyone and everyone who has ever felt like an outcast, outsider, or misfit. He’s the perfect embodiment of any of the angst or disgust that might surge through our veins at any given time. Except before I ever saw Martin Scorsese’s film, I always assumed him to be a thuggish villain. But his character is more complex than that. He’s far more relatable than I would have initially given him credit for.

The film actually opens feeling like the pilot of the Sitcom Taxi or something. There’s Bernard Hermann’s beautifully cool jazz-infused score and then the illuminating lights of an average New York evening. It feels strangely peaceful in spite of all that is going to go down.

Travis is an ex-Vietnam vet who takes a taxi driving job for the strangest of reasons. He just wants something that will have him working long hours and he isn’t too particular about what part of town he ends up in. From the get-go, he strikes the audience as a quiet almost silent observer of all that takes place around him on the streets every night. He’ll sit around with a couple cabbies as they chew the fat, but he’s essentially isolated — a repressed young man who doesn’t really express himself. His existence feels tragic and lonely, certainly not deadly.

taxidriver2There is a small beacon of hope when a pretty campaign volunteer named Betsy (Cybil Sheppard) catches his eye, and he has an extremely awkward interaction with her but it lands him a date. But Travis just doesn’t quite know how to act, he hasn’t learned what it means to be in a relationship and he has an error in judgment while they are out. However, he doesn’t see it that way. He feels his attempts at kindness were completely rejected.

Then, he also begins to notice a young hooker out on the streets and his next mission is to get her away from there back home. He thinks it’s the right thing to do and he means well but young streetwise Iris (Jodie Foster) doesn’t seem to want his charity. So once again Travis seems unwanted and not needed when he is trying to do something nice.

Travis even acknowledges to his colleague Wizard that he’s getting all twisted up inside and confused. He’s distraught and he has no way to deal with it so his outlet includes a heavy strength regimen and loading up on a ton of guns. Never a good sign, but it his mind’s eye it’s all to clean up the streets of the scum of the earth.

However, first he attends a rally for a presidential candidate that Betsy will be at and he has intent to cause harm, but he backs out at the last minute and goes to Plan B confronting Iris’s pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) and shooting him. The inner demons of Travis are unleashed as he goes off, but his delusions of grandeur reassure him that this is all for Iris. This is for her good. All this bloodshed.

taxidriver4The final moments after his rampage have Travis receiving a letter from Irises parents who are grateful for his actions to save their daughter from corruption. Then, a fully recuperated Travis finds Cybil sitting in the back seat of his taxi cab in all her glory. It’s beyond his wildest dreams, which begs the question is this reality, or is this just a clever construction of his own brain? Another delusion of grandeur. It’s a wonderful open-ended finale.

Paul Schrader’s script is a wonderful character study giving introspection into one troubled man’s psyche. However, there is controversy on two fronts. It’s rumored that John Hinckley Jr. who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan was influenced by this film and also the finale seems to reflect many people who commit mass shootings. Oftentimes they are people who are deeply troubled and are looking for some type of attention. But with that desire comes often deadly consequences.

taxidriver3Martin Scorsese’s film has also received pointed criticism for its violence which is hard to downplay. However, Taxi Driver remains interesting because it is not bloated with killing (in fact only one scene is actually bloody). Most of the film has to do with relationships or lack thereof because a lot of what Travis does is watch and listen. It might be Martin Scorsese in a cameo as a jealous husband or a presidential candidate asking Bickle’s opinion from the back seat. Furthermore, like any warm-blooded boy, he knows that Cybil Sheppard is a dream girl. And he has enough compassion to want Iris to have a normal childhood. It’s just that his conscientiousness is misdirected and subverted.

The film resigns itself to following this one man in the wasteland that is New York. It’s starkly beautiful and thought-provoking placing a troubled anti-hero in front a canvas of urban realism. I could never condone his behavior, but then again I could never be completely against him either.

4.5/5 Stars

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances_Ha_poster“You look older but a lot less grown up…” 

People as diverse as Buddy the Elf, Holly Golightly, and Annie Hall call New York their stomping ground and along with these iconic figures comes Frances Halladay. Her bubble does extend to France and California, but New York is really her home base. In Noah Baumbach’s film, we follow this enigma as her address constantly changes, and she strives to follow her dream of becoming a professional dancer. We are allowed time to examine and analyze her in all sorts of situations because plot usually gives way to various asides showcasing the free spirit who is Frances.

She worries about money, can’t pay rent, wants to play fight with her best friend, and is a self-proclaimed “undateable.” She acts like a five-year-old one moment and yet has an almost unknowing beauty about her.  In other words, she’s a real winner. We cannot help but fall in love with her since she wins us over with all her oddities from beginning to end. Her friend Sophie cannot stay mad at her forever either. It’s just not possible. They have to make up.

Frances settles down one final time, after trying her hand rather successfully at choreography and moving back to Washington Heights. There we get one last little nugget. We finally can chuckle knowingly about the title of this film. It’s so Frances and it’s the perfect cherry on top of the sundae.

In the tradition of New York films, Baumbach’s effort has a visual style that was meant to hearken back to the austere black & white of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). In some sense, it acts as another character altogether. Whether he is pandering to us or not, there is no doubt that I am a sucker for the cinematography and it made things just a little bit more magical.

Thankfully Greta Gerwig helped craft this script and in her character, she found the perfect paradox. An individual so extremely quirky, but still somehow believable in the same instance. Her foibles and pratfalls only help to solidify her character in our mind. The fact is that each of us probably knows some variation of Frances. Those individuals who dance to a different drum and give every single day that they live on this earth a certain degree of pizzazz. I speak for all the cautious, rationally minded human beings out there. We need the Frances Has to make us laugh and to shake up our normality at least a little bit.

4/5 Stars

An Affair to Remember (1956)

anaffairto2An Affair to Remember (1956) has always been noted as a great American romance as far as I can ever remember, and I figured out that part of that was because it gets a mention in Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Whatever the reason, I finally got around to watching it and it is certainly an enjoyable weepy. Any film with Cary Grant as a romantic lead is usually, at the very least, charming and this one is too. He is a famed man on an ocean liner who has finally gone and gotten himself hitched. It’s big news and as soon as the ship touches down he is going to meet his love.

Quite by chance, he meets Deborah Kerr’s character and they are immediately taken with each other. Soon their friendship grows into an affectionate romance, and yet they feel uncomfortable in front of the other passengers who seem to be watching their every move with interest. They both know that once the boat reaches New York things will not be the same between them for some time.

anaffairto4And so it is, but they had made one last plan to meet each other at the top of the Empire State Building. Grant makes it, but Kerr is detained for a very good reason. After seeing her in an awkward situation at the theater, Grant resolves to go see her and get to the bottom of what happened. It’s a tearful, albeit happy, reunion as they come back together.

If any of this feels familiar, like a rerun, that’s because it is. Leo McCarey actually made An Affair to Remember (1956) as a scene for scene remake of his earlier film Love Affair (1939). I never thought I’d say that I like a film with Charles Boyer more than a comparable one with Cary Grant, but it’s the truth. I’m not sure if it’s because I saw it first or that the film feels more intimate, but I really enjoyed Love Affair. An Affair to Remember is certainly elegant in color and Deborah Kerr gives a fine performance, but I was personally blown away by Irene Dunne as an actress. In fact, back in the day, Dunne worked quite a bit with Cary Grant (The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, and Penny Serenade).

So my advice is, go back and give Love Affair a watch. It’s still by McCarey with much of the same story so it’s really a personal preference what film you like more.

3.5/5 Stars

Pickup on South Street (1953)

bf34b-pickuponsouthstreetFrom American cult film director Samuel Fuller comes a brief, yet potent film-noir laced with communism, pickpocketing, and a lot of shady business on the streets of New York.
Grifter Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is just recently out of the can, and he is back on the streets up to his old tricks again swiping wallets. His victim this time around is a pretty young dame named Candy (Jean Peters) who has a mission of her own to drop off a package. Neither of them knows quite what they have gotten into and to start off with, nothing happens. What exactly has Skip stumbled upon? The answer includes microfilm, spies, and the Commies. All of a sudden things are hot, as McCoy tries to cut a deal with the Reds, and Candy tries to recover the film she unknowingly lost. Candy gets caught in the middle of her boyfriend who is sided with Communists and Skip who wants to cash in on his good fortune. Between Skip and Candy begins a wild and passionate love affair that seems destined for disaster. Both have their own agendas, but it is ultimately Candy who drops hers because of her new found affection. McCoy is callous at first but he comes around, in the end, leaving this noir on a surprisingly positive note.
Thelma Ritter was usually colorful in her many screen appearances and she has another memorable turn as the wheeler-dealer Moe Williams in this film. However, Moe does not just deal ties and secrets; she is a woman with a conscience and a touch of good old-fashioned patriotism. In her own simple way, she is a hero whether people know it or not.
Widmark played a similar conman in Night and the City (1950), but this time around things worked out a little differently for his character. The pickpocket sequences were perhaps less elaborate but still similarly intricate to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). It is possible that he got some of his inspiration from Fuller’s work here.
This is a real communist era thriller that Fuller injects with passion, grit, and some unadulterated violence. It is not a pretty film necessarily, but that is not what Fuller is going for, and he never does. Instead, as a former journalist, he reveals to his audience the nitty-gritty of South Street up close and personal. He succeeds with flying colors in delivering a first rate scoop of uncompromising pulp.
4/5 Stars

Marty (1955)

ae98e-marty_film_posterStarring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, this heart warming story is about an Italian butcher in New York. He is nice enough but he is the oldest in his family and the only one not married. Soon with the concerned questioning of his mom and the droll of his social life, Marty gets discouraged. However, after reluctantly going to a ballroom he meets a girl. She is shy and not beautiful but she and Marty immediately hit it off. Marty’s mom does not really like her and Marty’s friend Ange thinks she’s ugly. He is initially deeply affected by this but then he realizes his happiness is what really matters. Soon enough he is on the phone with his girl. This is one of those film good films and it seems to go against the usual Hollywood mold.

4.5/5 Stars

Serpico (1973)

acd89-serp2“Come on Frank. Let’s face it. Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?”

This is the state of affairs in the police department that green police academy grad Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) finds himself thrown into. At first, he is unaware of it all as he moves up the ranks as a young uniformed cop. In fact, he looks exactly like a post-war Michael Corleone at this point. His new role seems like an honorable life of camaraderie, duty, and public service. The corrupt is obvious and distinct from the good. Soon his brash, forthright style creates waves, but it soon becomes apparent that he is not one to care about hurting egos.

39dd2-serp2b3He moves on with his career working in plainclothes and getting a new apartment followed by a new dog. His appearance begins to change as well as he starts wearing a thick bushy beard and wearing hippy garb. It suits him fine in his work and outside he meets a pretty girl named Leslie Lane, but it’s not meant to be.

Serpico corroborates with colleague Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) trying to figure out how to bring attention to the bribes he has 60789-serp2b4been offered. But honest help is hard to find especially from someone who makes it stick. The higher ups care more about the reputation of the department over corruption, making progress difficult to come by. He continually bounces around from division to division and nobody seems to want him, or trust him for that matter. There are only a few honest Joes around and they are few and far between. Serpico gets transferred this time to the “upright” 7th division and begins seeing his next door neighbor named Laurie. Too soon he learns that one of his acquaintances is instrumental in the extortion that takes place department-wide. By now Frank is feared, hated, and despised because he will not take money under any circumstances. It takes its toll to be all alone in the force, and he lashes out at Laurie who leaves him for good. Now he truly is alone.

He becomes increasingly combative and paranoid as he gets ready to testify before the grand jury. Another case of bribes comes out and when Serpico and his upright partner try and report it nothing is done. As a last resort, Frank goes to The New York Times and they blow the cover right off. He soon receives an ominous death threat and gets shot when trying to bust someone.

He lays in the hospital recuperating asking for his guards to be relieved and watching the hate mail pile up. His badge is returned to him, but he rejects it in disgust, soon resigning from the police and waiting for a slow boat to Switzerland. That’s as far from New York as he could get.

It seems like there are so very many close-ups of Frank Serpico, and thus, over the course of the film we get the opportunity to truly study his face, or rather the face of Pacino as he embodies this character. His cold, aloof eyes, his facial hair that goes under several transformations, but that is only the outward appearance. It is his inner transformation that is most important because that is where his conscience lies, to guide him each and everyday on the beat.

My New York geography leaves something to be desired but that’s not the problem of native New Yorker Sidney Lumet. This is a story that takes place in New York, made for New York, and fit perfectly with its director. It seems like he knew the streets of the New York like the back of his hand, really creating an authentic atmosphere for this police biopic. It has a touch of The French Connection and yet it is a far more personal look at the life of Serpico himself.


This is also extraordinary because the story of Serpico was so fresh, still only a year or two old at most. Furthermore, the film has the same disillusioning and depressing tone of other dramas that came out of the 1970s. Back in the 1950s films like 12 Angry Men (Lumet’s debut) still had an air of idealism. That had mostly dissipated in the New Hollywood period, because the good guys aren’t black and white. Serpico is not the greatest guy around, but the one thing he has going for him is that he is not crooked and that’s saying a lot in the corrupt world he exists in. This is his story told with all the blemishes, personal troubles, and drama that went with it. The greatest service to him is that his story got told and hopefully truthfully enough.

4.5/5 Stars

Annie Hall (1977)

Starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, the film begins with Alvy Singer (Allen), a comedian with a good career and two unremarkable romantic relationships. That all changes when his friend (Tony Roberts) introduces him to the lively Annie Hall (Keaton). Over time they begin to grow fond of each other and they spend lots of quality time together in New York. However, after a trip to Los Angeles, they decide to split up and Annie stays in California. Alvy realizes his love and goes to see her again. His proposal of marriage is rejected, however after some time passes he comes across Annie in New York and they remember all the good times. This comedy romance is a quirky Allen movie that uses sight gags, breaks the fourth wall, utilizes voice over, and has lengthy camera shots.This film is a lot about simply talking and it certainly has its moments of brilliance.

4.5/5 Stars