Review: The Lady from Shanghai (1947): Funhouse Film Noir

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Before I knew the word “auteur” I think subconsciously I began to realize Orson Welles was gifted with this kind of innate artistic force that cemented all his pictures together. It’s part of what made him such a terror to work with and simultaneously a genius of such mammoth accomplishments as Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

However, even his lesser-known pictures addled by studio meddling or lack of funds, bear his mark of visual ingenuity and singularity. Run down the line from The Magnificent Ambersons to The Trial and Chimes at Midnight and you get the idea perfectly. Of course, The Lady from Shanghai keeps this same company capably.

At its core is not just one luminary performer but two: Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth. From a purely cinematic perspective, no one had seen either of them quite like this before. Welles acting as actor, director, and producer introduces the story in first-person voiceover cloaked in an Irish brogue. Meanwhile, Hayworth loses her trademark luscious locks to transform into a bleached blonde.

To look at its opening frames alone is to acknowledge that The Lady from Shanghai is noir in nearly every conceivable way. Further still, it never abates along these lines traversing a befuddling narrative arc. It ultimately fails to ever gain clarity while casting Michael O’Hara as a fated hero destined for some inevitable destruction as the narrative zips along with lightning-quick pacing.

He is instantly pulled into the entangling web of Rosalie Bannister though it’s as much a testament to the seedy characters in her stead than her own inclinations. Hayworth gives us an immaculate conception of a femme fatale who is in one sense deadly and still somehow trapped within her very existence.

Even as O’Hara’s concerns for her well-being rise, he only gets dragged deeper into the dark depths of the squalid world around him. Because this particular tantalizing siren is surrounded by a sea of ravenous sharks just priming themselves to rip each other to shreds. Even if he tells himself otherwise, he’s chasing after a married woman, biting off something much too big for him.

Invalid attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) clings onto his “lover” like a trophy because the truth is, he has dirt on everyone in his life — keeping them right where they serve him best. It’s his shifty valet (Ted de Corsia), constantly lurking around, who surmises that tough guys always have an edge. The movie is filled with such shifty characters.

George Grisby (Glenn Anders) is the most unnerving as Bannister’s equally conniving partner. His cackling chills the bones while his continuous obsession about murder and O’Hara’s own scrape with it becomes a queer fascination of his. The reason is still left unknown.

Welles’ camera lovingly adores Hayworth. As she learns to smoke, picking up the habit after seaside excursions or basking in the sunbeams on deck. She the epitome of classic Hollywood allure. It was never her hair anyways. I think it’s something in her eyes gleaming with inalienable life.

However, I want to hate most of the close-ups — as a visceral reaction — because I rarely feel an actor breathing down my neck and yet Welles readily goes back to them again and again in a way that’s unnerving. The worst of them all is, of course, Grigsby.

In fact, Welles continually chooses the most perplexing camera setups. It’s such that you cannot help but allow his perspective to infiltrate your own and dictate how you see things. He’s allowed for no other way whether it be the harsh low angles, overhead shots or cutting between various close-ups to create the patchwork of a single scene.

O’Hara joins the jocund company on the yacht while the picture benefits from early examples of post-war on-location shooting sweeping through Mexico, New York, and ultimately San Francisco. Though it has its share of perceived opulence, not least among it the borrowing of Errol Flynn’s prized boat for the production, equally visible is a certain degradation and subsequent atmosphere that can be traced to Touch of Evil a decade later. It’s an unsettling juxtaposition to go right along with the menagerie of players.

And if O’Hara’s own shark metaphors are not augurs enough, Welles has the gall to envelop himself and his lover in an aquarium where the sharks are literally circling in the background, magnified to almost inordinate proportions. The figures are black contours facing each other cloaked completely by the darkness, framed by the panes of the tanks. On the whole, it’s a definitive image of pure chiaroscuro photography, completely indicative of their fatalistic state.

Though the director’s picture originally clocked in at a whopping 155 minutes, it was slashed down to an expedient 87 minutes, which nevertheless means there’s not a continuous line of lucidity running through the drama. Because through outcomes that mostly elude us, O’Hara finds himself on trial for a murder that came to pass by means that are never quite expanded upon.

All of a sudden, he’s fighting for his very life by some cruel reversal. The most incongruous part is the very fact there’s almost a sing-song quality to everyone else from Bannister to Grisby to the District Attorney and the Judge presiding over the case to decide O’Hara’s life.

The flippancy to it all is disconcerting. It’s like Welles and Hayworth are caught in the ghastly webs of noir melodrama and no one else has the least bit of concern. It’s only a game to them. The doleful drone of the shipyards moan as the jury deliberates and Bannister all but admits he’s set O’Hara up for the gas chamber.

But the final act is quintessential Welles given the luxury of two fine setpieces. The creme de la creme is, of course, the funhouse hall of mirrors which is pure directorial showmanship, stylized with gunfire, broken shards of shattering glass, and images of our stars refracted in disarray. Words cannot do it the justice it deserves. It stands as a final testament to a picture that’s plot is about as wonky, unresolved, and inconclusive as any noir piece ever was.

But if you’re like me you get the sense Welles placed the utmost care in the aspects of the film that mattered most to him, namely the visual elan. Because certainly, Lady from Shanghai is a narrative mess. There’s probably little hope of actually justifying all of its leaps and bounds.  And yet in the same breath, it’s equally difficult not to concede how visibly delightful a feast it is.

Will it satisfy everyone? Certainly not. But that’s a part of what made Orson Welles an unprecedented mastermind. He very rarely catered to others and as a result, his films are usually creatures of artistic invention all their own. There will never be another Orson Welles. The same can be said of any so-called auteur. That’s what makes them special — their easily attributed individuality. No one else is capable of making the same exact film. As it should be.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Review: Cover Girl (1944): Hayworth and Kelly

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In the thick of the war years, Cover Girl stands as a beacon of unadulterated Technicolor lavishness permeating the screen. It proved a fine diversion from the day-to-day, which was wildly popular in its time as a vehicle for beloved screen star and Pin-Up, Rita Hayworth. Watching Cover Girl now, it’s become a fitting marker in the constellations of Gene Kelly’s career and the movie musical in general. We can easily use it to chart his course, culminating in later endeavors of the 1950s.

Because while Hayworth is the most substantial star in director Charles Vidor’s movie, going from Brooklyn chorus girl to rising starlet of  Variety‘s Golden Wedding Girl Edition, Kelly was simultaneously given almost complete creative control over choreographing his numbers. He brought on a young man named Stanley Donen to help with the process. Already we have the roots of a partnership that meant so much for the exploration of musicals as a cinematic genre.

We also have music and lyrics provided by the heralded Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin offering up “Long Ago (And Far Away,” one of the most mellifluous love melodies of the 1940s.

Rusty (Rita Hayworth) has a contented little life working at the hole-in-the-wall nightclub run by her boyfriend Danny (Gene Kelly). They work hard with rehearsals always at 10 am sharp, do their thing at night, and the after hours are theirs to wile away dreaming.

Her endearing pet name is “Chicken.” I’m not sure if we ever find out why. But their best pal, a goofy song and dance man, goes by “Genius” (Phil Silvers) and we know that’s in jest. Nevertheless, he’s their jovial third wheel as they always go to the same late-night hangout, order a heap of oysters, and go pearl diving. It’s a tradition and a habit but it also represents the dreams they haven’t quite reached yet.

“Make Way for Tomorrow” is a joyous romp preceding the palsy-walsy camaraderie of Don, Cathy, and Cosmo in Singin in the Rain (1952). It puts itself in line with all the great studio street corner numbers using extensive sets to create an indoor-outdoor world perfect for peppy outbreaks of dance. In his foresight, Kelly would have some of the set walls punched out so they could go about the number more or less uninhibited and it does wonders.

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So we see that Rusty is happy in this life and yet she still has personal aspirations. She tries her luck at a cover girl job. Cornelia “Stonewall” Jackson (Eve Arden with her usual verbal panache) is the executive tasked with culling through all the eligible hopefuls who walk into her office looking to impress. It’s a real cutthroat pack of wolves. On a side note, it’s fascinating to watch actual cover models from the era go from screen to pages of recognizable magazines. Oh, how things have changed in 75 years.

It’s Stonewall’s boss, magazine editor John Coudair (Otto Kruger), who picks Rusty as his newest star because she shares an uncanny resemblance to the girl he once loved in his youth, one Maribel Hicks. So there you have it! Rusty seems to have hit the big time. She puts Danny’s club on the map as their “Put Me to The Test” performance is a shining success and you’d think he’d be cheering for her.

But it’s his male prerogative to feel under attack. Suddenly she doesn’t need him and maybe she will leave him for the suitor and stage promoter (Lee Bowman) who is looking to move in.

Here we have an uncanny Deja Vu scenario as past and present overlap because by some strange coincidence Maribel Hicks was Rusty’s dear departed grandmother. Granted, it’s a weak piece of plotting but regardless, we have a spurned Gene Kelly on our hands. What it gives way to is the original shadow dancing although reflection dancing is more like it.

It was one of the earliest Kelly innovations allowing him to dance alongside himself, the devil on his shoulder telling him he’ll never get Rusty back. It’s this lovely melding of character progression through the art of dance. Proving it can function elegantly as both.

In the end, Rusty realizes what was good for her grandmother, who lived a satisfying life, is good enough for her and she runs off from her wedding day to get back with a woebegone Danny. It’s a happy ending as the gang’s back together. Consequently, Hayworth would elope with her next husband Orson Welles around this time. But the real-life results ended up being far more tumultuous.

Pal Joey, which Kelly had starred in on the stage, was to be the next pairing of Hayworth and Kelly but alas it was never to be. It finally came to fruition over a decade later with Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, and Rita Hayworth but it lacks the magic this earlier proposed version might have coalesced. What I was left with is the fact that Hayworth has quite the distinction. She danced alongside the two greatest that film ever had to offer: Astaire and Kelly. She more than holds her own as a scintillating star in her own right.

3.5/5 Stars

You Were Never Lovelier (1942): Hayworth and Astaire

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Buenos Aires conjures up a very specific Rita Hayworth film — the one that remains emblematic of her career and also typecasted her — you probably know it too, Gilda (1946). Thus, when You Were Never Lovelier opens in the same city, there’s this instant evocation in the parallel worlds. Because if these pictures take place in the same location, in theory, then cinematically they are vastly different.

Our first introduction is a face wedged behind a pair of binoculars. Once they’re pulled away we see Fred Astaire looking glumly as his horse trots by to the finish in last place. It sums up his struggles with gambling. He is a loser. Why does it matter? Though he’s a famed dancer back in New York by the name of Robert Davis, in this foreign locale he’s just a hoofer in need of some cash.

Quite by chance, he runs into his old pal Xavier Cugat who forewarns him that local club owner Eduardo Acuna (Adolphe Menjou) is quite the disgruntled customer. He’s not very easy to please. His constantly harried personal secretary Fernando, a distant relation, proves a perfect example. Consequently, burlesque comedy veteran Gus Schilling just might be the most hilarious addition to the cast based on his huffy indignance.

But just as Cugat predicted Acuna isn’t impressed by Davis nor does he want to sign him. Right now he’s simply ecstatic that his eldest girl is just about to be married. Next, in line is his daughter Maria (Hayworth) who has her pick of all the boys in town, though she never commits to any of them nor shows more than mild interest in their advances.

It all almost feels too suffocating as an insufferably schmaltzy family drama. There was enough room in my heart for Three Smart Girls (1936) even Four Daughters (1938) but another such movie might be pushing it. Ingenue sisters bustling about, mothers providing sniggering inane conversation and the father is not even as lovable as Charles Winninger or Claude Rains, who instead holds onto a ludicrous tradition that daughters must be married off in order. Worse still, he manipulates his daughter into falling in love with someone who doesn’t exist. All in her best interest, of course.

Astaire and Hayworth couldn’t get together fast enough. But when they do its hard to take our eyes off so why bother getting stuck on all the various mishaps? For instance, the fact that Menjou is the hands-on father, he’s doing his best to manufacture a romance for Maria through boxes upon boxes of orchids filled with notes professing the love of a secret admirer. Its only function is offering a point of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

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Despite a less than cordial introduction, Hayworth sees Astaire with new eyes when she mistakenly believes him to be her mystery man. Father feels like he’s in a bind and so he orders Davis to play the part and let her down easy. He’s not about to let his daughter get married to HIM!

Astaire keeps his physical talents on ice for a time barring a few foot taps, getting his first real showcase at a wedding where he flexes his vocal cords. His pure tonality and diction made them perfect pipes for innumerable American standards. Though he doesn’t heat up his taps until 35 minutes into the picture.

His first substantial meeting with Ms. Acuna and her family turns out far differently than any parties planned, namely Mr. Acuna or Robert. “I’m Old Fashioned” sums it up as our two stars go out on the veranda for some quality one-on-one time and share a dance together.

Hayworth sports the most seductively saucy raised eyebrow leading Astaire in one exchange to ask her, half-jokingly, to turn around. Staring at her face — beautiful as it is — melts him to jelly. He can hardly get his thoughts together in her presence. There’s also the dissonance of what he’s been instructed to do by Mr. Acuna and how he feels for this girl.

Despite purposefully forgetting to invite Mr. Davis to a fancy dress Anniversary Gala, an invitation manages to find its way to Robert regardless, setting up the final act in this tempestuous matchmaking affair. Acuna is in dire straits. The game seems to be up and yet the suitor he had long wanted to get rid of, falls on his sword and helps the other man save face.

Never fear. We know that our two stars are fated to be together. Later Astaire comes clomping around in a suit of armor and promptly tumbles right off under the fair maidens bedroom window. And yet his girl gladly takes him anyway derailing her white knight complex and dancing off into the distance as nice as you please.

As much as the mechanisms of this story drive me up a wall, I cannot dismiss Astaire and Hayworth. Its a minor vehicle for both but a spotty delight nonetheless. The very fact that Rita Hayworth herself considered it a personal favorite is merit enough. One might imagine that it’s every young dancer’s dream to keep time with Fred Astaire. It was no different for Margarita Carmen Cansino. Gilda was passion twisted up in perverse contortions. You Were Never Lovelier allowed it to be innocently saccharine instead, like a dream of childhood. Sometimes we need those movies.

3.5/5 Stars

Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Hawks’ Greatest Adventure Movie

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Howard Hawks always had a knack for creating worlds and subsequently building camaraderie between his characters simply by stringing scenes together one after the other. Only Angels Have Wings sets up a premise — revolving around a South American outpost — then settles in on two flyers.  But for all intent and purposes, Joe Souther (Noah Berry Jr.) and Tex Gordon (Don Barry) exist in the periphery of the story.

Despite all this, we’re instantly interested in what they have to do in this world and they’ve got their eyes on a woman (Jean Arthur) exiting a recently landed ship, only to strike up an instant connection as they’re a trio of Americans. A sequence that almost feels ominous initially does a rapid about-face to settle into something a great deal more amiable.

In truth, the introduction of a female heroine fresh off the boat in a foreign land hearkens back to Miriam Hopkins in Barbary Coast. She too was a tough character who was capable of surviving in a rough and tumble boomtown out west. Jean Arthur does much the same in Barranca. Except the difference is Arthur seems adept at showing her flaws with that quirky comic edge of hers.

The other added benefit is Howard Hawks seems about as invested in this picture as he could be due to his own intense preoccupation with big birds in the sky. His surname never seemed apter. The flight sequences follow in the path of Test Pilot exuding a certain authenticity while the narrative itself is unparalleled thanks, in part, to the entire framework built around it. The fascinating assemblage of characters is a testament to the best of what old Hollywood has to offer.

In 20 minutes he’s already enveloped you in an entire cinematic reality full of people, atmosphere, stakes, and danger. The genial owner Dutch (Sig Ruman) is slowly going broke trying to keep the establishment afloat. His last chance is to come through on a 6-month contract of mail deliveries without a failed drop.

Everything he has is riding on it but he’s a man who cares about people and their lives. It’s not merely a business endeavor. It’s about relationship and that’s why everyone likes the man. Even with this kind of impetus, it remains a harrowing life or death operation that Hawks documents with immense clarity.

Lives are still lost because flyers are foolhardy, proud, and daredevil types and yet when you put them up in a plane fighting against the elements and geography, they don’t always come out on top. Modern man and especially the modern aviator of 1939 is far from infallible.

But it’s one of the most gripping flight films buttressed by Hawk’s capacity for lulls and interludes which layer on character to the plotline. It’s imbued with the same spellbinding aura of a Casablanca or To Have or Have Not. There’s a certain ambiance pervading those classics of old and ironically, the moments that give us impressions of the world and the people walking around in them are the ones I’m most likely to imbibe. They speak in basic, visceral terms about men and women and how we cope with one another. How we emote: laugh, cry, get angry, and bury our emotions to avoid getting hurt.

Cary Grant is hard and fierce as ace flyer Geoff Carter who runs the airmail service for Dutch, willingly deferring to him in all matters due to Geoff’s history and expertise. We get the impression our protagonist is embittered by the years of such a tough vocation. His personality at times proves as severe as the brim of his hat.

When I watch Only Angels Have Wings I remember where Devlin came from in Notorious (1946). Because Grant reveals a side of his persona like a double-sided coin. There’s something different hidden under each side and he’s a tortured soul struggling to reconcile the life he leads with feelings he is so inept in expressing. Because the danger of any type of human attachment is that the same person could just as easily be taken out of your life a moment later. Far from despising him for his callous attitudes, it makes him all the more intriguing as a human being. Because every other character brings something out of him.

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Though his career had all but tanked after immense successes with D.W. Griffith in the silent era, Richard Barthelmess has a crucial role as a recently arrived flyer who has an ignominious history under a different name. In a single moment, he broke the unwritten code of the skies, never bale out and leave your copilot high and dry. It’s followed him everywhere he goes like a Scarlett Letter.

What makes it particularly volatile is the fact that the dead man’s brother, The Kid (Thomas Mitchell), a 22 year veteran of the business, is Carter’s right-hand man. This past tragedy causes the aging pilot to seethe with anger as his ill-will toward Macpherson burns under the surface. There is a great deal of unresolved ire between them waiting for release.

In fact, that’s the trait of many of these characters. Because Macpherson has picked up an attractive young wife in his travels. Though Rita Hayworth is in a smaller role as Judy, it’s still significant because most every player is given a piece of the pie. Her connection being the fact she knew Geoff in a former life. They don’t admit it right away but it becomes clear enough. And of course, there’s this uncomfortable chafing as Grant keeps the disgraced pilot in his back pocket to do all the dirty work. He’s handsomely paid for it but there’s no sentimentality or camaraderie.

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Everyone else is a part of Grant’s family as it were. MacPherson is just around for his usefulness. Carter’s relationship with the other man’s wife puts him in yet another position of power to show compassion. He surprises us incessantly and a dose of redemption explodes right out of an inferno of tragedy.

But we have yet to consider Grant and Arthur’s relationship throughout the picture, arguably the film’s most integral and constantly evolving asset. He is a man who can never be tied down; he does not share feelings or expect anything from any woman. And yet hidden away and shrouded from view are these threads of decency running through his life. Ways that he cares for people without letting his virile image slide. The final scene is a fine summation.

The pass is clearing up and despite all that’s gone wrong — he’s only got one good arm for goodness sakes and Bonnie’s about to leave him — there’s still a drive to finish what they started. But there’s a chance to make it through and save their contract and as he goes flying out the door he gives his girl a great big kiss and says he’ll flip her for whether or not she stays or leaves.

Of course, we know full-well the coin he tossed her is from “The Kid.” It’s marked with heads on both sides. She’s hurt at first. Injured by this flippancy and lack of commitment. But then she realizes, turning it over in her hands. In his indirect way, he’s saying he wants her to stay.

Why bring this up at all? As best as I can explain it, this individual scene is so beautifully restrained and nuanced in a way that surpasses other lesser films. Meanwhile, Only Angels Have Wings displays all the delectable glories of a deeply satisfying adventure film from Howard Hawks. There’s drama, romance, friendship, tragedy, and a simplicity to the action lines which nevertheless feels deeply indicative of the human condition.

4.5/5 Stars

Blood and Sand (1941)

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There’s little doubt Blood and Sand was a follow up to The Mark of Zorro (1940) meant to capitalize on the lucrative romantic pairing of devilishly handsome heartthrob Tyrone Power and winsome ingenue Linda Darnell. But what it sets out to do, it achieves through an ability to capture us in a joyously Hollywood confection. It pulls out all the stops to establish Spain for the moviegoing audience. Flamenca, guitar, castanets, swirling skirts, and sashaying ladies are all present bursting forth from the screen with multicolored gaiety and merriment.

The picture in straightforward fashion charters the rise of a young boy into a renowned matador with aims at commanding the grandest stage in all of Seville. Juan Gallardo (Power), buoyed by a tight-knit band of friends and propelled by lifelong ambition, is ultimately able to realize his dreams and to garner all the laurels lavished on the man of the hour.

Most important of all, he’s finally able to marry the girl whom he’s loved since childhood, the virginal beauty Carmen Espinosa (Darnell). She has dutifully waited for his triumphant return when he serenades her with a full band and presents her a wedding dress to pronounce his everlasting love. They’re young and deliriously happy.

While initially maligned as a fifth-rate talent, now the famed purveyor of public opinion, Natalio Curro, christens Gallardo the finest matador in all the land. Laird Cregar is more than capable as the pompous bullfighting critic who relishes the spotlight as well as his reputation as a tastemaker.

Likewise, everyone wants Juan to be the godfather of their child. He is in high demand and he catches everyone’s eye. Namely, the recently returned socialite Doña Sol des Muire (Rita Hayworth) coming from irrefutably high-class stock. She has her pick of the litter and she immediately becomes diverted by this dashing matador tossing him down a red rose in return for a couple tokens of his goodwill.

Meanwhile, Carmen remains faithful by his side praying every day he enters into the ring to do his work. She dotes on him with breakfast, reading the headlines about his finest hour, and remains his constant companion.  However, the allure of the “other woman” ensnares him and his fate is all but sealed. Just as he baits the bull, she soon has him reeling much the same. But the only real person to blame is himself.

His wife is betrayed in one heart-breaking confrontation, his finances are in disarray, his temper has alienated many of his closest allies, and his success in the ring has begun to falter. None of these plot developments are unforeseen. On the contrary, we expect them. As his mother reminds him, taking cues from the Biblical parables, “One can’t build on sand.” Because everything you worked so hard to erect will just as easily come tumbling down when the downpour hits.

It’s as much his own fault is it is the fickle masses who are so unforgiving. Pretty girls like Doña just as easily move on to a new toy, this time Juan’s lifelong rival Manolo (Anthony Quinn). And of course, Curro has been quick to pronounce the new man as the latest shining comet of the new season. He fails to add that comets burn brightly only to fizzle out in a nose dive. The tragic metaphor is a little too obvious.

But again, the picture is all spectacle and it’s ultimately bolstered by lavish costumes and the early shades of Technicolor offering a seminal example of 3-strip Hollywood opulence. Rouben Mamoulian’s artistry in mise en scene from his days with the stage are on display, played out to the nth degree. The screen and the stars are easy on the eyes. The director purportedly kept cans of spray paint on hand to touch up any necessary blasé patches with enhanced color. However he achieved it, Blood and Sand generally works.

True, bullfighting always seems like a barbarous pastime even as Hollywood can’t show that much. It does feel like a modernized incarnation of gladiatorial battles.  Just as the public is petty, it’s even a little difficult to feel sorry for our protagonist, though Linda Darnell, continually surrounded by Roman Catholic imagery, remains as the last vestige of saintly virtue.  She’s never been so pure.

The same cannot be said for Rita Hayworth in her secondary role, which in itself is a rather strange circumstance since she had yet to reach the heights of her later career and pictures like Gilda (1946). Tyrone Power could coast on his looks and charisma alone and he pretty much does.

3.5/5 Stars

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

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The opening shots of The Strawberry Blonde are not unlike Easter gatherings at my family’s house. Croquet in the backyard…well, that’s about it. But that’s precisely the distinction that’s being made as Raoul Walsh develops a dichotomy between two societies on either side of a brick wall.

On one side the Yale college boys play guitar as their gals all gussied up sing “Meet Me in St. Louis” after a rousing game of croquet. They are eye-catching and the frivolously well-off members of the elite. We think of them and their gayly prim and proper ways when we conjure up archetypal mental pictures of the so-called “Naughty Nineties.”

On the other end, two working men play a good old-fashioned game of horseshoes. They’re a different type of folk. A Greek barber (George Tobias hidden behind an accent and a mustache) and our pugnacious protagonist Biff Grimes. It’s not a typical Cagney picture but it’s still a typical hard-nosed Cagney and that’s the joy of it.

To use his vernacular, he’s a real hairpin. The kind of guy who never takes nothin’ from nobody but has made a habit of getting stepped on his entire life. Whether it’s the girls he’s missed out on or the fights he’s lost or any number of other footfalls. A 5-year stint in prison springs to mind.

Still, he can’t believe he missed out on the flirtatious, bodacious strawberry blonde Virginia Bush (Rita Hayworth), what seems like so many years ago now. But as was his habit, Biff’s friendly rival Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) ended up the lucky man.

Following their fateful first encounter, Biff gets continually saddled with Amy Lind (Olivia De Havilland) which obviously would be far from a disappointment with any sensible man. That doesn’t stop Biff from being sore. He needs a house call to get it through his thick skull that he really has a life to be grateful for.

This is the Epstein Brothers’ glorious revamping of a failed Gary Cooper vehicle from 1933, in this case, made to tailor fit James Cagney. The actor returned to his old studio, Warner Bros., looking for a change of pace to get him as far away from gangster fare as possible. Likewise, director Raoul Walsh was looking for a change after the riveting but tragic drama High Sierra (1941).

Given the results, it’s little surprise that the director considered it one of his personal favorites among the many pictures he helmed over the years. The quality cast starts with Cagney but we really have four superb talents at its core rounded out by Olivia De Havilland, a vivacious Rita Hayworth, and that old happy-go-lucky jokester Jack Carson. Alan Hale fills in as Cagney’s derelict father who’s always finding himself getting thrown out of the local saloon by the ear.

By now I all but take James Wong Howe’s photography for granted but as per usual, The Strawberry Blonde looks two-tone drop dead gorgeous as it lights a world with nostalgic hues of turn-of-the-century New York. Whether moonlight, streetlights, or candlelight, it is a film that is totally evocative of a bygone era.

Where men removed their coats to partake in fisticuffs. The same men humored their best girls with Sunday walks in the afternoon while local bands paraded through the park their brassy tunes wafting through the air. The barbershop subculture was in full bloom, quartets and all. Likewise, modernity was coming into its own with nitrous oxide, horseless carriages, electric lights, women’s suffrage, and the art of spaghetti imported from Italy.

In some paradoxical way while being nostalgic it still finds a way to feel surprisingly progressive particularly through the character of Olivia De Havilland with all her so-called improprieties. A nurse who winks, smokes, and whose mother was a bloomer girl and her aunt was an actress. At least on the surface. Maybe she’s not quite like that.

Meanwhile, Biff is always trying to save face his entire life and as a married man, he’s trying to save face with his concerned wife. He lives with discontentedness instead of satisfaction but just as the times keep on changing, Biff does too, realizing how lucky he is.

What makes the film itself a charming change of pace is the fact that it’s not concerned so much with one singular defining moment of drama but an entire life and it elicits a connection with a time and place even as we feel a sense of pity for Biff. It’s not a bleak film, more of a wistful one, and with wistfulness, a lighter more nostalgic tone can still be evoked.

Even to the end when Cagney takes on the masses it’s great sporting fun and he gets in his licks like any of his gangster pictures but he does it with a loving wife and a life to be wholly satiated by.

4/5 Stars

“Don’t be a hypocrite Virginia. Spiritually you winked.” ~ Olivia De Havilland as Amy Lind

Review: Gilda (1946)

Gilda_trailer_hayworth1If you’re worried about Johnny Farrell, don’t be. I hate him~Gilda

And he hates you. That’s very apparent. But hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?…There’s a heat in it that one can feel. Didn’t you feel it tonight? ~Ballin

Gilda became synonymous with Rita Hayworth and for good reason. She was the embodiment of so many of the things found desirable by many men from a certain age. Frisky. Sultry. Beguiling. Teasing men, leading them on, and leaving them. Hating them as much as she loves them. That’s where the passion derives from — very volatile beginnings.

It’s true that Hayworth’s playfully ravishing seductress was forever immortalized in Shawshank Redemption and really in the mind’s eye of anyone who ever has seen her singing “Put the Blame on Mame” even once. She’s also, consequently, the epitome of the deadly lineage of femme fatales at times both tragic and destructive, alluring and lively. It’s difficult not to get drawn in like a moth to the flame.

But underlying such a performance is something a little more disheartening as this is only a cinematic depiction. It is not reality and yet it brings to mind a paraphrased quote that I will attribute to Hayworth, perhaps recalling her turbulent union with Orson Welles or maybe all the men who found their way into her life. “They go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me.”

The implications, of course, are far-reaching suggesting just how much this fawned over female ideal was a pure fabrication. It’s not real. Rita Hayworth could never measure up to that fantasy nor should she have to. Because while Gilda’s tantalizing as a cinematic siren, in real life she could never exist. Her passions impinge on her entire existence where she sees hatred, lust, and love all in synonymous terms. She hates Johnny and she loves him. She doesn’t want him and she does for those very reasons.

While not to downplay the negative impact the role may have had for Hayworth’s personal life, there’s no doubt of its cultural clout even today and it helps make this film-noir directed by Charles Vidor a high water mark of the dark genre for the very reasons mentioned before. Jo Eisinger’s script is also a strikingly perverse number as it begins to draw up the relationships between Gilda and her men.

Because it doesn’t end with her. Gilda needs others to play with and she’s given the perfect counterparts in Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) a man who willfully counters anything she offers up in the areas of sexual tension, embittered ridicule, or psychological warfare. It’s like they enjoy to torture each other — they enjoy to be able to make each other reel and fume. It’s all part of the twisted game they play of love and hate. He seethes with a vindictive coiled anger just waiting to be unleashed and he lets it go time after time. Sometimes upon provocation and other times out of sheer malice.

It all finds roots in a past we can only presume about and it’s true that all three of our leads are shrouded in some mystery when we’re introduced to them. First, Johnny Farrell a smart aleck gambler who gets himself a job as the right-hand crony for Ballin Mundson (George Macready) a man who is far more than a simple casino magnate. His business dealings run a little broader and more clandestine than he initially lets on.

Farrell’s a quick learner and ambitious so he moves up the ranks and soon he’s got the most prized position by Ballin’s side as his closest confidante and most importantly of all he’s there to watch over the other man’s wife — his favorite treasure to flaunt — the one and only Gilda.

It’s in that unspoken past that Gilda and Johnny learned to disdain each other and it stokes the flames of their relationship. It’s brutality mixed with sensuality which is at one time disconcerting but at the same time hard to pull away from. Again, moths to the flame.  It’s so wickedly twisted with rage and passion and all those human emotions that make us despise one another one moment only to make us no be able to live without each other in the next.

At a certain point, there’s no longer any sense in trying to draw up sides whether it’s feeling sorry for Gilda or empathetic toward Farrell and the thoroughly uncomfortable position he has been placed in as keeper of the bosses wife. Both of them have the makeup of true noir protagonists.

Otherwise, Rudolph Mate’s gorgeous imagery is absolutely fantastic and is certainly worthy of simply being marveled at on multiple occasions for its delicious compositions and use of shadow. Hayworth is rendered even more beguiling and Macready becomes an even more perplexing figure masked in darkness. Meanwhile, the Carnival celebrations are cast as stunning spectacle and over the top extravagance that’s also rudely disrupted by murder.

One could take it as a metaphor suggesting that the post-war era had commenced with a flourish but that cannot completely get rid of the sour taste left over from the war. A veil of darkness still remains.  Along similar lines, there’s a bit of Casablanca’s tension running through this film, and its atmosphere, while not quite on par with its predecessor, still rings with a lot of character.

The roulette wheels are in fine form and the establishment is full of its own rogue gallery of humorous and foreboding figures alike. The always lovable Uncle Pio provides a dose of good humor but there are also treacherous Germans, numerous rich boy toys, and a surprisingly civil government agent who all make a habit of frequenting the most popular casino in Buenos Aires.

It might be true what Johnny says about gambling and women not mixing but then again with the lens of film-noir they prove to be a high octane combination, representing vice and sensuality, two of its most readily available commodities.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

ShawshankRedemptionMoviePoster (1)This film originated from a Stephen King novella called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The actress actually does play into this movie and her famed hair flip from Gilda even makes a memorable appearance. However, the shortening of the title not only simplifies things, but it refocuses the film on what it is all about. You guessed it. At its core, Shawshank is about the redemption of one man who would never let his hope or ardent spirit be quelled. That man is the memorable, but generally unassuming, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins).

His story began back in 1947 when he was put on trial after being accused of riddling his unfaithful wife and her lover with bullets in his drunken rage. We see bits and pieces of what happened, but not everything. Andy quietly maintains his innocence, but he is dealt two back-to-back life sentences in the Shawshank state penitentiary.

When he gets there initially he looks to be a pushover, not ready for the dark recesses and the harsh reality that is prison life. In his typically smooth mode of voice-over, Morgan Freeman, as camp grifter Red, recalls when he first set eyes on this man. He didn’t know it then but Andy would prove to be a life-changing acquaintance, and he also proved to have more guts than Red was expecting.

They first cross paths when Andy comes to Red inquiring about getting a rock hammer and Rita Hayworth. Red obliges and these trinkets allow Andy to shape rocks to form a chess set. The poster goes up on his wall and others soon follow. He’s a man who always strives to stay busy, and he never lets his circumstances get him down.

It doesn’t come easy though because the local prison gang christened “the sisters” are used to getting their way with any inmate they cross paths with. Andy is not one such individual, and he pays the price, receiving beatings on multiple occasions. Still, he keeps on living and ultimately makes a name for himself by providing tax advice for one of the most notorious guards. It’s after this specific moment when he wins a round of beers for his mates that they begin to see the extraordinary individual in their midst. He goes by the credo, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Following his own words to a tee, Andy begins to prove his worth and earn respect as he gives tax advice to many of the prison attendants and guards. Even the hypocritical warden uses his services to keep his finances and office in order.

Andy is also transferred from doing grunt work to helping the aged prisoner Brooks in the library. It’s a step up and unprecedented in the history of the prison, but then Andy is truly special. After Brooks is released and tragedy strikes his life, Andy continues to improve things. He regularly writes his representative for funding so he can get more books and his work finally pays off. He also sets up a program so prisoners and workers alike can gain the equivalent of a high school education.

As the years pass, the prisoners get older and the posters change on Andy’s wall from first Rita, to Marilyn, and finally Raquel. About that time, a young prisoner named Tommy finds himself in prison and all the old timers like his energy. Andy resolves to get the young man an education and Tommy, in turn, shares some potentially life changing evidence with Andy. But it all comes to naught. The warden maintains his tyrannical reign and the defenseless Tommy is struck down.

Andy begins to lose some of his privileges as the warden starts to clamp down on him again by throwing him into solitary confinement for two months. When he gets out, Andy’s hope is still alive, sharing with Red about his dream of someday going to Zihuatanejo in Mexico to live in solitude. Red thinks it’s all folly, but agrees to do something for him if he ever gets out.

Then during an upcoming roll call, all of a sudden, just like that, Andy Dufresne is gone for good. To add insult to injury, he used his business acumen to stick it to the warden who is investigated by the police. Andy has the last laugh.

After so many rejections and denials, Red finally gets his parole and he looks like a mirror image of Brooks, a man who grew to know the Shawshank as his only way of life. It looks pretty fast and grim on the outside now. But Red has a purpose that Brooks did not, in Andy. He keeps his promise to Andy and rendezvous with his old friend.

Shawshank is a thoroughly engaging film and it works because of the performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Robbins acts as such a bright light despite his solemnity and subtlety. He is unceasingly upright;  the perfect contrast to this prison which is a vile, disgusting place full of corruption and violence. Freeman is the cynic and in many ways, he stands in for the audience. He wants to believe in a man like Andy as much as us, but the world initially tells him he cannot. However, Andy proves Red and the world wrong, by redeeming what has fallen. I can never get over that truth because it is such a powerful message told in such an engaging way.

4.5/5 Stars

Cover Girl (1944)

5fff5-covergirlmpRusty Parker (Rita Hayworth) is a chorus girl at Danny McGuire’s place (Gene Kelly), however she has the chance of a lifetime to be the cover girl of a major magazine. She is going places with a rich suitor who wants to hire her and then propose marriage. Rusty neglects her old job and it leaves Danny dejected and angry. He knows that Rusty has a great future in front of her but he cannot stand to break up their team that includes their mutual friend Genius (Phil Silvers). At first Rusty does not understand her true feelings and rashly decides to get married. However, much like her grandmother before her, Rusty realizes in the nick of time how she feels.

This Technicolor film has one or two decent numbers and I was surprised how nimble Phil Silvers is on his toes. He dances well with Kelly and Hayworth. As always Eve Arden is as humorous as ever and Gene Kelly used his artistic control fairly well.

3.5/5 Stars

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

a4eff-only_angels_have_wings_posterStarring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur with a cast including Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth, and Noah Beery Jr., with director Howard Hawks, the film follows pilots who fly mail throughout South America. Grant is the head of the dangerous operation and it becomes apparent to Arthur that he is callous, after a great tragedy strikes. However, she still stays out of interest in him. Things get complicated when the new pilot arrives and he carries a past that puts him at odds with everyone. It doesn’t help that his wife (Hayworth) was the former girl of Grant. In order to keep the operation going, Grant is forced to send out this Macpherson as well as his best friend “The Kid” (Mitchell) into a large storm. Needless to say that are not able to make it. Arthur is about to leave after this second disaster, but beforehand she says goodbye to the saddened Grant. He soon peps up when the weather clears and then prepares to fly again. Arthur at first feels rejected but with a flip of a coin she realizes his love for her. This is certainly a tragic picture, but good nonetheless.

4/5 Stars