Garden of Evil (1954): Starring Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark

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It does feel like one of the grand old westerns we left behind in more recent years. It’s a big picture in the horizontal majesty of widescreen, Glorious Technicolor, backed by the only score Bernard Hermann would ever arrange for the West. There’s little doubt we are in for a spectacle of the highest order.

Maybe Richard Widmark doesn’t look as good in color as the shrouds of noir, but he can act. Here he’s a poker player who fancies himself a poet on the side. As he gets off at an isolated Mexican outpost, he’s yakking away to the typically taciturn Gary Cooper. The taller fellow plods by his side quietly amused by everything coming out of the Widmark’s mouth.

They are joined by a third man (Cameron Mitchell) biding their time en route to the goldfields of California by listening to the floor show (Rita Moreno) at the local cantina. I do relish films that take place in multiple languages; perhaps it humbles me. Because as I’m no longer living near a Latino community and I haven’t studied in a long time, my Spanish is rusty, so I can only pick up bits and pieces. I am at the mercy of others.

But it also means Gary Cooper can pay a major service to the audience. He translates for us and with that comes an added depth to his character. He’s knowledgeable and must have been around. How does he know the language? We don’t know right off so it teases us to stick around in order to find out.

It’s quite relaxing until Susan Hayward bursts in on the men, effectively dropping the whole reason for the picture right in their laps. An adventure is afoot, and they take it up with few reservations. It doesn’t seem to cross their minds to question any of it; the compensation waved in front of them is high enough. Maybe they maintain their own private reasons. Soon they’re journeying through a mountain pass in order to help save the woman’s stranded husband (Hugh Marlowe).

A perfect moment on the road — making sure we’re aware of the stakes — features a dislodged frying pan clattering down below, ricocheting off the rock faces, and echoing through the canyon as it makes its descent.

As things progress, it becomes apparent the fine line between brooding and dull is a difficult one. It certainly is, more often than not, a slow burn with Widmark waxing philosophical and Cooper projecting an air of constant clear-sightedness about the world. He never loses his head. The rest of the time we’re waiting for something.

The confrontation between Hooker (Cooper) and the hothead Daly (Mitchell) is a particular sequence to relish as the young gun not once, but twice, is sent somersaulting on his back — his butt nearly putting out the fire and getting singed as a result. By the end of his drubbing, he’s practically rolling in it, and he’s been made to look terribly foolish.

But like Way of The Gaucho, the on-location shooting is what the movie can boast about the most. The action is middling and dull at best, because it’s a long haul to get a payoff.  We are waiting for things to come to a head and while Indians are said to be brewing up in the hills, they only show themselves briefly.

Oddly, Susan Hayward is thanklessly cast as the villain-turned-hero. Maybe it has to do with the time the picture came out since she hardly gets the delicious part of a femme fatale. More often than not, she feels like a scapegoat, that is until everyone realizes how faithful she is. It’s too little too late.

By the end of the story, the emotions lack resonance, because they haven’t built up into anything truly believable with continuity we can easily trace. It does feel a bit like running through the paces just to get to the marks, and it’s difficult to say given the talent on hand. They are a fine host of actors.

It’s possible to cast a bit of the blame on Frank Fenton’s script, which has fun with some dialogue — getting a bit profound about male avarice and passion — while supplying the actual plot little meat.

Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark too were always men of action, but there’s not enough here for them to accomplish. By the time they have chances to do what is purportedly brave and heroic, the deep recesses of meaning looking to be excavated are hollow — even strangely so, because we truly want there to be more, and there isn’t.

3/5 Stars

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

carnalknow1“If you had a choice would you either love a girl or have her love you?”

That is the question posited to commence the daydreamy dialogue rolling over the credits of Mike Nichol’s Carnal Knowledge. The nostalgic refrains of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” bring us in as we begin to listen to the cadence of two voices. We’ve heard those voices before probably numerous times. One has a sneering quality, and it belongs to none other than Jack Nicholson, coming off a few early classics like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. He’s got the trademark snideness in his delivery. It’s all there. The other voice is more soft-spoken and calming. It can be heard on numerous folk records of the ’60s and ’70s — the voice of Art Garfunkel.

These two men play Jonathan and Sandy, two college roommates who spend their entire lives confiding in each other as they try their hands, usually unsuccessfully, with relationships. The age-old debate between looks and brains is only one major point of contention.

There are the awkward opening moments at a college mixer. The college dorm room talks cluttered with girls, girls, and more girls. In fact, they both get tangled up mentally, emotionally, and physically with a girl named Susan (Candice Bergen).

Both leave college going off in two different directions in the realm of romantic relationships. Nicholson’s character is more about the open-minded approach keeping his options open and he thumbs his nose at any ultimatums a woman gives him. He’s his own man and he’s not going to be held down — even going berserk with his longest partner Bobbie (Ann Margret), because of her insistence on wanting more. He’s not about that but ends up cycling through the women. The irony, of course, is that although he seems like a more stable, contented than his best friend, Sandy still winds up in several different marriages just the same.

Really, the film fits somewhere in there with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate if only for the fact that Carnal Knowledge engages with broken human relationships once more. In one sense, there can be a great deal of hurt, pain, and even abuse that come out of them. But also they can be wellsprings of depth and even humor at times. What makes this film, based off of a Jules Feiffer script, is the buddy perspective. It’s the buddy perspective that you could argue that was given a facelift and re-popularized by When Harry Met Sally. And yet you can see it here as well.

There’s candid, frank, sometimes even overtly crass dialogue. And it continues through their entire lives no matter who they are with, what jobs they are in, or how their looks have changed. The conversations continue. The sobering fact is that both haven’t been able to figure things out. It doesn’t seem like they’ve come all that far from their naive college days. Jonathan now seems like a lonely dirty older man compared to a dirty young man. Sandy is enraptured by a young woman who can mystify him with her thoughts. They haven’t really changed a whole lot.

The closing moments of Carnal Knowledge are perturbing not necessarily because of what happens, but because of the realization of what these men have become (or haven’t). We see first-hand that Jonathan has fully succumbed to his own self-narcissism while Sandy tries to convince himself that he’s happy. It’s sad really.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: West Side Story (1961)

westside1Look at West Side Story through a simple lens and you might see a Shakespearian classic given a 1950s facelift and set to music. It might seem antiquated, perhaps not as politically correct as we have come to expect, and maybe a bit regressive. However, this musical based off of the bard’s famed Romeo and Juliet is most definitely a thematic spectacle pulsing with song and dance. It’s full of romance, full of angst, all expressed through the motions of the human body. In an age where we often feel like we have come so far and know so much, maybe a film like this is good for us if we take a step back for a moment.

Robert Wise’s film opens over the skies of New York and we are quickly introduced to the two competing forces that rule the streets with a “snappy” opening number. You have the local street gang, the Jets made up of delinquents of New York and the Sharks consisting of young immigrant Puerto Ricans. They hate each other for different reasons, but the bottom line is that they hate each other, and there’s no other way to slice it. A tiny scuffle broken up by Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke is only a small tremor of what is to come, but it sets the tone.

The Jet’s leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) is looking to have a rumble with their bitter rivals and the neutral territory at the local dance is the perfect opportunity to set things up. Although people are having fun and it’s a grand ol’ time you can tell there’s unrest between the factions bubbling under the surface. The indubitably funny John Astin makes a valiant effort to get them all to be friends, but it doesn’t work so well. Bernardo (George Chakiris) the leader of the Sharks accepts the offer to have a war council because he wouldn’t mind getting a piece of one of the Jets.

The glue that holds the narrative altogether, of course, is the romance that buds on the dance floor when our star-crossed lovers Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) first meet. This is important because Tony use to be a Jet and is still the best friend of Riff. Meanwhile, Maria happens to be the younger sister of head Shark Bernardo. This is a relationship that’s not supposed to happen and yet their inhibited, naive passion disregards all else. He’s obsessed with a girl named “Maria.” That’s all he has, a name to go with a face and yet he’s infatuated. The singing of “Tonight” reflects how caught up in this dream they really are. And finally “I Feel Pretty” is Maria’s own exuberant reaction to the turn of events.

As an aside, Richard Beymer supposedly wanted play Tony rougher around the edges instead of a hopeless romantic, but ultimately it seems alright that he did not. Only because this film is not simply a drama where a nuanced performance would be suitable, but it is also a musical and a romance. In many ways, we need his character to be as love-struck and idealistic as he is. Because his song and his love story are a striking contrast with the world he and Maria live in.

westside2With the rumble afoot the following night, it can only spell trouble for all involved. The moment that Tony promises Maria that he will try to stop the fighting, he is part of it. Things turn out as he could never have imagined. In fact, no one wanted things this way, revealing how big a difference one single day makes. Tragedy hits with a vengeance, making this a marvelous piece of cinematic expression, but also a jarring indictment of this broken world we live in.

All the choreography in the film is directed by Jerome Robbins, and it is beautiful to see the melding of something so graceful like ballet crossed with the street gangs of New York. There’s something inherently contradictory about it and yet the culture, as well as the angst, is revealed so beautifully. It can be smooth and slick with a group of buddies or violent with arms flailing, heads contorting, and bodies all over the place. But it’s never vulgar, the people might be, but the dance never is. It is always enjoyable to see George Chakiris dance, and he’s not the only one, from Rita Moreno to a whole host of others. They move with such grace but it is never dull because it has feeling. And that extends to their entire performances. In fact, Chakiris and Moreno are probably the most enjoyable, because they are far removed from the dreamy-eyed couple of Tony and Maria.

The composition by Leonard Bernstein is obviously outstanding and this is one of the famous soundtracks in musical history including the “Jet Song”, “Maria”, “Tonight”, and “I Feel Pretty.” However, I think I was especially interested in “America” and “Gee Officer Krupke.” The first puts to song the two conflicting perspectives that lead to civil unrest. There’s the idea that America is this land of opportunity and yet there’s also a negative flip side to this ideal. Also, the second song in a comical way, comments on the treatment of the youth of America. From a film that might seem outdated, it has some pretty frank analysis of the never-ending cycle that goes on.

westside3In fact, if we give our society a good hard stare, have things really changed? Are our discrimination and racism better than that of Lt. Schrank or just veiled behind greater open-mindedness? Are people still hating one another, even when they might be more similar than they realize? Is our society working towards collective good or are we slowly “killing” it through our acts of hate? Even a likable fellow like the drugstore owner Pop (Ned Glass) brings into question those who are against the violence but don’t really seem to do much about it. Words don’t act unless the people behind them do. That can go both ways.

All this pops into my mind because of a musical from over 50 years ago where, yes, Natalie Wood was, unfortunately, playing a Puerto Rican. But hopefully, we can look past that for a moment and see the artistic merit here and then think for a moment what themes we might glean from this West Side Story.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

f7d3a-singin_rain I always seem to get goosebumps during Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number, because each time I see and hear it, there is still a new magic to it every time. You see when I was young, before I knew all the classics, first and foremost, I knew this gem of a film. It is such a wonderful buildup to that moment with such personal favorites as “Make em’ Laugh” and “Moses Supposes.” Then you have the always popular “Good Morning” with not only Kelly but Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds performing. Great stuff! There’s tireless choreography that goes into many of those sequences but it comes off so effortlessly and it brings us into the moment. There those wonderful, brief instances when you lose yourself in the music, the magic, and so on.

As the story goes, the three friends save the failing “Dueling Cavalier” by losing the simple “talkie” gimmick and making it a musical by dubbing the squeaky-voiced Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen). Cathy (Reynolds) no longer is a bit player, and she gains the acknowledgment that she deserves. Then Don Lockwood (Kelly) gets the girl who burst out of a cake. Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) is along for the ride staying with Don through thick and through thin, even calling him a cab when necessary. He’s a true friend in a million.

Although Kelly had a career with other high points (arguably never as high as this one), I am always slightly saddened that O’Connor and Reynolds never reached another apex like this in their subsequent careers. But they were both so great here, we must simply cherish this film for what it is.

Even to this day, the film holds up, and that is a tribute to the writing of Betty Comden and Adolph Green highlighting the infant Hollywood and the advent of talkies. In the same breath, it’s both a satire of the movie star culture and still a love letter to that same cottage industry. The only film with a similar dissection of Hollywood’s Golden Age is another 50s classic in Sunset Boulevard. The big difference is that Wilder’s film is chock full of drama and darkness. Singin’ in the Rain will always and forever be a light, fun musical with a lot of laughs.  It is constantly quotable whether it is “dignity, always dignity” or “I CAN’T stand it!”

Jean Hagen is always the butt of everyone’s jokes, but she is indeed very funny with the most annoying voice in the history of cinema (She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. Triple threat). You also have other fine performers like Millard Mitchell as studio head R.F., and then appearances by Cyd Charisse and Rita Moreno who made a name for themselves as dancers in the ensuing years. And is it just me or does Donald O’Connor remind others of Danny Kaye? He not only cracks the jokes, but he is a wonderful all-around performer. Although O’Connor was undoubtedly a better dancer.

All in all, this is a timeless classic and it will undoubtedly keep that title for as long as people watch movies. Now I hope it starts pouring buckets of rain so I can go outside and stomp around in the puddles. I will let you know if I come down with pneumonia. But until that happens I’ll enjoy every minute of it. I entreat you to do the same.

5/5 Stars

West Side Story (1961)

354d1-west_side_story_posterIn this 1960s, musical adaption of Romeo and Juliet, two lovers become infatuated with each other but the problem is that none of their friends would ever approve. They come from two different classes and backgrounds which are constantly at odds. The two sides frequently clash as represented by the Shark and Jet gangs. Naively, the lovers believe they can get away and be happy forever. However, the situation escalates when the gangs take part in a rumble. Pretty soon the situation is out of control and it has become something nobody wanted. Hope for the future finally seems possible for the pair but it is brutally crushed in an instant. The viewer is left with a feeling of tragedy. This is a very good film for the most part and many of the songs are great, sticking with you afterwards. I suppose it is quite difficult to go wrong with a story from Shakespeare .

4.5/5 Stars