Review: Notorious (1946)

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I never put much stock in a Hitchcock title out of force of habit or lack thereof because he never seemed to. But thinking on Notorious I came to the rather unextraordinary epiphany that it refers to lovely Ingrid Bergman as much as any Nazi, at least from a certain perspective.

In the film, she plays the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who was put on trial and found guilty. She, however, is not implicated in his deeds. Instead, busying herself with having a good time, drinking, dancing, laughing — all the superficial pursuits that can distract her from a post-atomic world. You might even say her reputation precedes her and that provides the framework for how others see Ms. Huberman. Namely, one government agent named Devlin, put on her case and writing her off early on as a certain kind of woman.

There’s that initial shot at one of her parties where all the guests are dancing and drinking and everything’s jovial and there Cary Grant sits on the edge of the frame just his profile identifiable to us. And the beauty of the scene is that Ingrid Bergman starts talking to him but instead of showing us his face Hitchcock elects to wait until everyone is gone and they’re sitting together in the next scene. But already there’s this implicit sense that there’s something unusual about this man even without putting words to it.

In the subsequent scene, we get our first view of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together and how wonderful they look. But Bergman’s character makes an off-handed remark about love songs, about how they’re a bunch of “hooey.” Of course, that pertains to this film and where it will decide to go in the realms of romance, but in my own mind, I see it also functioning as a reaction to Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By” — a film where lovers fell in love partially because of a song.

It’s easy to put the title of a spiritual sequel on Notorious for numerous reasons. Once again we have Bergman and Rains in crucial roles and then trading out Bogey for another legend in his own right, Cary Grant. The paranoia of Casablanca is replaced with the sunnier disposition of Rio de Janeiro which nevertheless is underlined by a certain looming Cold War menace. In this case, instead of the letters of transit, we are provided a Hitchcock MacGuffin, including a bottle of wine, some uranium, and an iconic UNICA key.

But if nothing else these minor remarks can put the debate to rest conclusively. Notorious is a spectacular film in its own right and it enters some similar yet still uncharted territory in accordance with the waters Casablanca chose to ford a few years prior. Meanwhile, Grant has glimpses of his previous self from other films but soon enough he falls into the role of cool and calculated federal agent Devlin in what feels like a true departure.

There’s that supremely unnerving shot as we take on the perspective of a disoriented Ingrid Bergman as Grant walks into the room and hangs over her in a strangely alarming way. Everything is setting up the dynamic at this point.

Still, others will remember the extended make-out session that made history by upholding the Hays Code ” three-second rule” while simultaneously perfectly encapsulating nearly an entire romance in a matter of four or five minutes. There was little else to be said because it was all seen in that one sequence and Hitchcock could proceed with his conceit.

Because, ultimately, Hitchcock’s picture is built around this idea: The American government has a little job to be done and Alicia and Devlin are caught in the middle. Thus, it becomes that time-worn idea of love versus duty. In one sense, Devlin’s caught in a terrible position and yet in the other he treats Alicia so badly — and it’s not simply that this is Alicia but this is beautiful, sweet Ingrid Bergman that he is pushing away. Still, in pushing her away, it’s leading her toward the objective.

He’s simply not willing to dictate anything because that means being vulnerable. Very simply he’s not willing to open up.  Cary Grant has never felt so icy, so aloof, and so unfeeling. Then, on top of this, Sebastian (Rains) looks a far more agreeable fellow cast in such a light. He genuinely loves this woman even if she is a spy. It makes for a conflicted viewing experience.

Though there is a juncture in the film where Devlin is beginning to shift his way of thinking. But as if on cue (undoubtedly) one line of dialogue out of Alicia’s mouth during a racetrack exchange (“You can add Sebastian to my list of playmates”) poisons his whole frame of mind again. His prior opinions of Alicia are confirmed and he sours to her — never giving her the benefit of the doubt from that point forward — and ultimately torturing her so that there is no other choice.

Just like that, she goes through with it. Instigating her relationship with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) and succeeding so thoroughly that she’s married to him soon enough. For the U.S. government this is a smashing success but for Alicia and Devlin it’s nothing of the sort.

The descending stairwell crane shot is textbook Hitchcock and so often cited but it’s for that very reason. He so directly points us toward the cues of the scene and he does it with his usual technical elegance.

He gives us a party but it’s a party underlined with so much tension because there are stakes that go beyond the nominal appearances. There’s the fact that Devlin’s one of the party guests but also Alicia has that all important key that proves to be their chance to figure out what Sebastian is hiding. But it also makes them far more suspicious.

Beset with paranoia as much as illness she’s suffocated by the presence of her husband and mother-in-law. It looks like Devlin will never come to her. But he does. We’ve seen this before. Cary Grant comes to her bed as she lies there disoriented and looks up into the eyes of this man looking to be her savior instead of opting to use her. At least on one account, the tension has been resolved.

But in the same breath never has there been so much sympathy as for Claud Rains in the closing moment indicative of how Hitch has even given his purported villain a chance to be sympathized with and Rain’s typically compelling performance does precisely that. So even in this final moment, Hitchcock is playing with us giving us that Hollywood ending that we desire and at the same time undermining it in a wonderful way that’s both suspenseful and artistically arresting.

Notorious just might be the Master’s purest expression of his art lacking the micromanagement of Selznick in Rebecca (1940), the technical experiments of Rear Window (1954), the psycho-sexual layers of Vertigo (1958), the man-on-the-run motif of North by Northwest (1959), or even the low budget and marketing frenzy of Psycho (1960), while still garnering the highest production values in its day.  The results speak for themselves, positioning Notorious as one of the definitive romantic thrillers by any standard.

5/5 Stars

Review: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

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If Alfred Hitchcock had any contribution to the war effort then Foreign Correspondent would no doubt be it. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was purported to have admired its qualities as a work of propaganda and that’s high praise coming from someone who was quite familiar with influencing people. If nothing else it proves that moving pictures can be deeply impactful on mass audiences and that still holds true much the same today.

It’s also subsequently reductive to call our leading man Joel McCrea the poor man’s Gary Cooper which may have come into being because the other star turned down the role. Something that he subsequently regretted. However, there’s something inside of me that thinks that McCrea almost works better because he has a sardonic edge. Cooper was quiet and strong, a true blue American but McCrea is ready to hit the pavements with a voice that’s incisive.

In this picture that’s his trade. He’s used to crime beats and as such he’s given the task as a scoop getter, a foreign correspondent, in the European theater for the folks at home. What he comes upon is more than he could ever imagine with international treaties, assassinations, kidnapping, drugging, and far-ranging conspiracy. All because of a peace conference looking to alleviate the belligerent rumblings in Europe. In this case, Johnny Jones (McCrea) aka Huntley Haverstock acquaints himself with an international peacekeeper named Van Meer only to have the man disappear, reappear, and wind up in places that one would never expect. It’s all very peculiar.

One of his other acquaintances is the lovely and bright young woman played by Laraine Day (known to baseball fans as the future Mrs. Leo Durocher), who has joined her father (Herbert Marshall) at a summit of the International Peace Party.

Within this basic storyline laced with some snappy lines provided by a whole slew of script contributors (including regulars Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison), Hitchcock strings together some lovely visuals including crowds of top hats, crowds of umbrellas, and a lively chase as Haverstock sprints through traffic to try and apprehend a gunman. Unsuccessfully I might add.

The world is highlighted by some equally inventive locales that are simultaneously indigenous to their environment in typical Hitchcock fashion like the windmills in Holland. With its churning mechanisms and creaky stairwells fit with cavernous hallways, you can tell Hitchcock finds great delight in using the stage to build the stakes of his story.

Because it’s all a massive cover-up and that conveniently sets the stage for our romantic comedy which is being overlaid by this international thriller of stellar intrigue. As our intrepid correspondent acknowledges, he’s “thrown a monkey wrench into some international dirty business whatever it is.” That’s about all we need to know and it does suffice.

My only misgiving is how easily Laraine Day’s character gives way and loses her disapproving edge to fall madly in love with Joel McCrea. Still, the film doesn’t end there. There’s a lot more that must happen. A lot more crises to be averted.

Though it’s hard to know the precise timeline now, there’s an innate sense that Foreign Correspondent is really on the cutting edge of the current events and it benefits from that very quality that still lends a certain amount of credence to this nevertheless wildly absurd plot.

Because though it’s undeniably a work of fiction as noted by the opening disclaimer, there’s still the touches of truth that were all too obvious to the general public. Namely, Hitler and a World War threatening to explode — bombs already raining down on Great Britain as undeniable proof.

The most remembered setpiece comes last and it’s a beautiful touch of ingenuity, Hitchcock simulating the crash landing of an airplane like few others of his era would ever dare to attempt and it comes off with torrents of energy that leave a stirring impression.

But that is almost matched by the passionate rallying cry that Joel McCrea sends up over the radio waves to his fellow Americans, urging them to keep their lights burning because they’re the only source of hope in a world getting increasingly darker. This final monologue was essentially an afterthought penned by Ben Hecht but it’s heft no doubt impressed Goebbels. This one’s an international thriller with a patriotic tinge. Fitting, as Hitchcock in many ways would be as much an American as he was an Englishman.

Foreign Correspondent is sutured together along those same lines. Because just as Joel McCrea and George Sanders’ characters work together to get to the bottom of things, the imminent war necessitated a partnership between the American and British nations. It was a long time coming but the lights kept burning and remained indefatigable to the very end.

4/5 Stars

Night Train to Munich (1940)

Night_Train_to_Munich_Poster.jpgWe are met with the scourge of Hitler overrunning mainland Europe. It’s about that time. American isn’t involved in the war. Britain’s getting bombed to smithereens and the rest of Europe is tumbling like rows and rows of tin soldiers.

Carol Reed always proved astute at setting the stage for great human dramas and Night Train to Munich is little different. Anna Bomasch (Margaret Lockwood) wakes up to find that the Nazis are on the march for Czechoslovakia and her father, a renowned scientist, is fleeing the country. However, she’s not so lucky and gets intercepted by the Nazis ending up in a concentration camp instead of aboard an airplane to freedom.

It’s in these moments where the script develops a fairly frank depiction of the concentration camps denoting that they were hardly a day of wine and roses. But in that very harrowing climate, she meets a proud rebel named Karl (Paul Henreid) who uses his underground contacts to help them escape and promises Anna that they will find her father in England. Hope still exists.

The man they wind up reaching in the British Isles feels more like a nobody than a top government agent singing tunes at a beachside promenade. But Dickie Randle (Rex Harrison) proves to be far more than he lets on at face value. Still, he is not the only one who holds that distinction and no sooner have they been reunited then father and daughter find themselves kidnapped by Gestapo spies and carried on a U-Boat back to the Fatherland.

We know where the final act must go as Randle heads into the mouth of the lion’s den to try and pull off a daring rescue that looks like an absolutely ludicrous endeavor with not even a half chance of succeeding. He masquerades as a member of the German corps of engineers and pulls the wool over on some of his denser adversaries. Still, one man is not so oafish and they must thwart the insider Gestapo man looking to trap them.

In its day and even now the film was pitched as a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938). The connection can be attributed to several aspects including similar locales — namely a train — the same studio producing in Gaumont, the screenwriting skills of Sidney Gilliat, and even the same leading lady in Margaret Lockwood. For these very reasons, it does become an interesting exercise to juxtapose this later work with The Lady Vanishes.

In fact, Reed’s film you could say was steeped in politics more than anything dared by Hitchcock. But it might be a stride too far to surmise that Carol Reed was a political filmmaker. He was a master at creating compelling worlds planted in the realities that were already known to us such as war-torn Ireland or Post-war Vienna. They are real moments but as is explained so exquisitely at the beginning of Odd Man Out (1947), these are not the particular aspects that connect us together. It is the universal quality of the human experience that reaches us…

That Man is evil. That love leads us to make choices that others would not. That Man often makes war instead of peace. Admittedly, Night Train to Munich is not such a rich exploration in environment, character, or cinematic themes, but it still has power as a fairly frank thriller. It can be hailed along with films like The Mortal Storm (1940) and The Great Dictator (1940), for being astutely aware of the historical moment that they were embroiled in — at least more so than most.

There are innumerable jabs at the Nazis including one minor gag involving the inflection of the phrase “This is a fine country to live in.” One rascally dissident uses this precise scenario to slither his way out of an appointment with a local concentration camp. Still, a moment like this and similar gags in barb-laden comedies like The Great Dictator (1940) or To Be or Not to Be (1942) come with a certain solemnity. Because we know the vast amount of carnage such camps were guilty of.

Surprise, surprise that everyone’s favorite British comic duo Charters and Caldicott crop up again proving to be as fussy as ever. Except in such an edgy climate, they too feel oddly out of place. Because maybe the threat feels all too real and as far as characters go they are caricatures not fit for such a realistic world. They’re just not quite at home with Nazis and concentration camps and how could they be?

Still, putting them back in their element, that is, back aboard a train, it feels like all is right with the world again. But even then, they act differently. This time they stick their necks out spurred on and put in a general huff by the indecency of the Nazis. And if they can all of a sudden get patriotic then the assumption is that most any convivial bloke can.

Whereas the train acts as the hallmark of The Lady Vanishes, in this film it is more of an important stop along the way in the overarching narrative. This story boasts a thrilling cable car finale with a subsequent shootout that’s gripping despite the inexhaustible amount of bullets or maybe precisely for that very reason. Carol Reed’s films would only improve as the 1940s went on but there’s no denying the intrigue and political clout here. He deserves to be remembered among the foremost of British directors if not only for his revered masterpieces like The Third Man (1949) but also the minor classics like Night Train to Munich (1940).

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The 39 Steps (1935)

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With The 39 Steps, it’s possible to witness Alfred Hitchcock coming into his own and one of the most obvious markers are numerous motifs, character archetypes, and techniques that would crop up in his work again and again. But it’s also conceivable to trace the influences of this film in most every spy-thriller-comedy-romance that has ever come in its stead.

Like The Man Who Knew Too Much the year before, this picture takes little time to get going and Hitchcock strings scenes together in such a way that the narrative is constantly on the move. Our modern sensibilities might tell us that his picture is rushed but it’s unquestionably interesting. It’s equally likely that we might believe other scenes are too slow. And yet he really does offer up a wonderful thriller that maintains a driving force of suspense. The key is balancing the more complacent moments with great jumps and leaps in story that both work to keep us simultaneously engaged and off balance.

He rather brilliantly cuts from scene to scene giving us just enough information to grow invested in his man-on-the-run spy thriller that looks vaguely familiar. In fact, it’s easy to see the groundwork for Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill from North by Northwest (1959) in Robert Donat’s own credible characterization. In many ways, it’s a humbler version of the later cross-country epic trading the vast expanses of North America for the quaint and still majestic United Kingdom. We even are treated to one of Hitchcock’s original blondes in Madeleine Carroll and like all his greatest stories, he uses the seemingly useless plotting device, the so-called MacGuffin, as the motor to his narrative.

The action opens in a music hall where a lively performance is going on in front of a rowdy crowd and the festivities showcase the rather unbelievable phenomenon of Mr. Memory, among other acts. But in typical Hitchcock fashion a gunshot goes off and pandemonium breaks loose.

In a moment, we’re shown the outside of the venue and our hero Richard Hannay finds his hand being held by a frightened woman. Hitch moves the action forward on this coincidental meeting and never ceases from that point on. You see, this woman is connected with the international spy world. She gives a vague notion of her business but what isn’t vague are the men who are looking to kill her or the subsequent knife found in her back.

It’s yet another thrust forward in the film that sends Donat hurtling toward Scotland, the location where his female visitor noted her contact was located in. But equally telling is her warning to watch out for a man missing the tip of his finger. So, of course, in perfect Hitchcock fashion, in a completely ludicrous turn of events, the double chase is on. Both the authorities and the bad guys are after this innocent man. One for the murder attributed to him and the others for the knowledge that he now has.

From this point onward the almost picaresque plot is continuously streamlined and functions on a subsequent row of fascinating scenes and locales that all could work as separate entities entirely. First, he’s riding aboard the Flying Scotsman jumping free of the train to evade capture. Then, Hannay is holed up in the home of a gruff farmer and his sympathetic wife in the Scottish Highland. He meets the big man face to face and gets away with his life only through sheer coincidence. Next, he unwittingly ends up giving a stirring speech to the local electorate about their obligation to live a life of brotherly love before getting whisked away by the authorities.

Subsequently, he finds himself handcuffed with one of his earlier acquaintances from aboard the train (Madeleine Carroll). The fact that they despise each other perfectly highlights the best comedic elements of The 39 Steps as they bicker and struggle to keep their cuffs inconspicuous moonlighting as newlyweds.  This section of the film hearkens to some similar moments in the screwball comedy of the prior year It Happened One Night and it doesn’t hurt that Donat has a mild resemblance to Clark Gable. He happens to whistle a lot too.

Still, this is a Hitchcock thriller and it takes them through the moors of Scotland, their fleeing feet masked by bleating sheep and their mutual distaste finally traded for a general amount of concern. You might say they grow on each other. Yet that does not take away from the bottom line.

Government secrets of the utmost importance are about to be smuggled out of the country and they haven’t the faintest idea how it is to be done. Surprise, surprise, we end up in a packed London Palladium where everything must come to fruition. By this point, we hardly know how we got where we are as an audience and when it’s all over there’s more than a few questions — maybe even a few objections — but there’s no doubt that the 39 Steps is a clinical exhibition in the art of the spy thriller.

Although his actors would arguably become more prestigious (though Donat and Carroll are no slouches) and his whole productions more impressive, it’s decidedly difficult to deny the sublime vision that courses through the film. It could really function as several films all in under an hour and a half and yet ultimately it comes off unequivocally as one picture. It’s not simply one of Hitchcock’s finest British efforts, it’s a high watermark in any conversation of his oeuvre.

If you desire even a single moment of pure ingenuity look no further than the interlude when the maid comes into the murdered woman’s flat. We expect to hear her bloodcurdling screams as she turns toward the camera but instead, we are met with the high-pitched screeching of the train as Donat idly sits now miles away. In the hands of another director, this whole sequence might have slogged on. Hitchcock makes it positively gleam with possibility and that’s indicative of the whole picture.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

Charade (1963)

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It’s easy to yearn for the days where they made stylish, amusing films like Charade which were equal parts charm, class, and wit all stirred together to perfection. Those were the days when two stars as beloved as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn could carry a picture no questions asked because people would turn out to see them no matter the story. And it’s true, though they were never in another picture together, there’s a wonderful chemistry that builds between them and never ceases from the outset of this lithe thriller.

From their first exchange up until their last, it’s hard not to delight in their every interaction, every word, every smirk. There’s a consistent playful patter bubbling up that’s at times suggestive but never loses its sensibilities. There’s a constant twinkle in the eyes of our stars interrupted every now and again by brief moments of sheer terror. Hepburn playing her elegant self but perpetually frantic while Grant exudes his general charisma that sees him through peril as well as innumerable comic situations (ie. an awkward game of pass the orange as well as showers with his clothes on).

Of course, it hardly hurts a bit that Charade has a surprisingly tense plot that while a little flimsy in some areas still manages to have a plethora of twists, turns, and about-faces to come off generally befuddling like many of the most enjoyable thrillers out there.

It all begins with a body getting tossed from a passing train. Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is on a vacation on a snowy mountaintop away from her husband with a wistful sense that her marriage is done for. Little does she know how right she is. She returns to her residence in Paris only to find all her belongings gone and her husband dead. The police believe it has to do with a missing $250,000 that Lampert was purported to have absconded with during the war. Their guess is that one of his old platoon mates let him have it so they could get the payload for themselves. All of this is news to Regie who was painfully ignorant of her husband’s affairs. And now with it all dropped in her lap, she doesn’t quite know what to think.

The police inspector (Jacques Marin) on one side questioning her and the Federal Agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) frightening her out of her mind. The only real bright spot is her newest acquaintance Peter Joshua (Grant) and she’s bent on chasing after him before the people chasing after her catch up. Because life, even a spy life, is better with a companion.

Forget the fact that this film has often been attributed to Hitchcock. This is Stanley Donen’s creation and if nothing else it exhibits his admiration for the Master as well as his adaptability taking his own skills as a comedic and romantic director and adding a touch of the thriller to the mix.

He makes it work very well and paired with the typically jazzy score of Henry Mancini, a continually entertaining script by Peter Stone, and generally immaculate color cinematography by Charles Lang, Donen can’t miss.  If it’s not the greatest film if only for the very fact that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously, Charade uses that very quality to its advantage with plentiful splashes of fun and romance.

Audrey Hepburn robed as per usual in iconic creations by Givenchy looks to play the huntress on the prowl. While on his own admission Cary Grant takes the passive role as the pleasant older gentlemen who nevertheless wears many hats and many names. Though Hepburn and Grant undoubtedly take center stage and rightfully so,  that’s not to discount quality character actors like Walter Matthau, George Kennedy, and James Coburn filling in as the deceased Charles Lampert’s old war comrades each carrying a bit of a vendetta.

The surprisingly tense conclusion sweeps through the Parisian streets, subway stations, colonnades, and finally an abandoned theater. But, above all, Charade does well to neutralize its more intense or even grisly moments (at least by 60s standards) with its persistent charm. The type of charm that make those films of old so endearing much like the actors who starred in them.

It’s as if in the twilight years of the studio system some of the greatest names coalesced to gift the world another gem for the road. There certainly were signs of change with wistful mentions of Gene Kelly’s early classic An American in Paris or a passing remark about stamps commemorating Princess Grace’s coronation (which took her away from a brilliant film career). At 59 Cary Grant was aging gracefully but still near the end of his career with only two more pictures to follow. And Audrey Hepburn herself would finish out the 1960s with several notable classics and then she would all but conclude her illustrious career for good.With Stanley Donen still with us, he truly acts as one of the last strands connecting this generation with those Golden Years of Hollywood.

However, the most significant reality is that this film came out in December of 1963, a mere month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated near the Book Depository in Dallas Texas. That singular event more than any other was emblematic of the change that would surge through society and the world at large. That is the world that Charade was born into.

So if you were to use the unforgivable cliche at this point that they “just don’t make movies like they used to,” you probably would be correct because that’s close to the truth. Films like Charade are all but gone and when you actually consider the joy of watching Hepburn and Grant together, it really is a terrible shame, though it simply seems a testament to the rolling tides of change.

Still, there’s something truly magical that occurs when they’re together. They were an altogether different breed of star. Maybe it’s the way they carry themselves, dress, or speak. Maybe it’s the way they look at each other. Maybe it’s their quips. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But they’re two of the greatest we’ll ever know for the simple fact that they were so beloved. They made us love them and as a result, we buy into this entire film. We bought into their charade and enjoyed every last minute of it.

4/5 Stars

That Man from Rio (1964)

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That Man from Rio is a find. It’s a dazzling picture that’s as comedic as it is entertaining bursting with a Brazilian energy that brings to mind the Bossa Nova rhythms of Sergio Mendes somehow married with the world of James Bond. And it’s true, there’s without question a major debt to be paid to Dr. No and From Russia with Love.  It’s a good old-fashioned international thriller in the most delightful sense.

Jean-Pierre Belmondo is one of our intrepid albeit reluctant heroes–more of a Gilligan than a masterclass spy–a bungling Bond if you will.  In fact, Adrien is fresh off a stint in the air force with a week’s worth of leave. And he’s planning on some nice relaxing R & R with his best girl our spunky heroine Agnes (Francoise Dorleac). But that all quickly goes to hell.

Because he doesn’t know what’s going on while his train is rolling into the station. A mysterious statue belonging to the indigenous Maltak peoples of the Amazon Rainforest is purloined from its place at a Parisian museum in the wake of a silent murder. It’s in these opening moments that the film feels strikingly similar to the following year’s caper comedy How to Steal a Million starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole.

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However, the story rapidly leaves behind the museum corridors for territory more at home in, if not Bond films, then certainly Tintin serials. Most memorably pulling from his adventures in South America as well as snatching some eerily similar plot points from Herge’s Prisoners of the Sun and Red Rackham’s Treasure.

Belmondo quickly is thrust into the ruckus as our comical and nevertheless compelling action hero who can be found riding a commandeered motorcycle through the Parisian streets in pursuit of his kidnapped girlfriend.

He’s more than once seen pitifully chasing after a car on foot and his being in the air force must explain why he’s utterly lacking in hand to hand combat skills, more often swinging wildly with blunt instruments and getting knocked to the ground for his efforts. There’s a bit of Indy in him with his own personal Portuguese Short Round, the local shoeshine boy and if rumor serves as fact it’s no surprise that Spielberg supposedly saw the film nine times in a flurry of infatuation. If the influences of Tintin can be seen in Rio, then the film undoubtedly inspired Raiders and its sequels, making it no surprise that Spielberg would produce a Tintin picture of his own.

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The madcap antics are in one sense reminiscent of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World also featuring trains, planes, and automobiles of every color and description. It too has an outlandish progression of events that nevertheless make for a thoroughly entertaining adventure.

The stolen statue and murder lead to kidnapping and a spur of the moment trip to Rio where Adrien somehow snags a ride on a flight so he can catch up to his girlfriend. But soon they’re both on the lamb, looking for the missing statue and trying to rescue Professor Catalan (Jean Servais), a friend of Agnes’s late father who as luck would have it, also winds up kidnapped. That’s about all you need to know to latch onto to the workings of the plot as they surge ever onward through crazy chase scenes, frantic escapes, bar fights, and whatever else you could possibly imagine.

Phillippe de Broca’s film right from its opening credits boasts gorgeous photography that positively pops making the most of Parisian streets and most certainly the luscious Brazilian locales that still somehow purport a grittiness. There’s the juxtaposition of the worn street corners that at times feel cavernous and somehow still manage to be quaint with a tropical affability thanks to the myriad locals and tourists who inhabit the world.

Having first become acquainted with Francoise Dorleac in The Young Girls of Rochefort opposite her sister Catherine Deneuve, it was easy to consider her the lesser star despite being slightly older. That’s how hindsight gives us an often contorted view of the past. After all, following her own tragic death in a car crash, her sister Catherine has gone on with an illustrious career that has kept her at the forefront of the public consciousness as one of France’s preeminent cinematic treasures.

But after seeing The Soft Skin and now Our Man in Rio with Cul de Sac still to see, it could easily be questioned whether or not Dorleac or Deneuve was a greater star early on as both were involved in some stellar projects. Umbrellas of Cherbourg probably still gives Deneuve the edge but a film like Rio and its star at the very least deserve a brighter spotlight.

Alongside Belmondo, Dorleac is his comic equal as they gallivant frantically every which way both pursuing and being pursued. And from both actors, there’s an obvious exercising of their comic chops that really becomes the core of this film even with its certain amount of intrigue. In truth, they both perform wonderfully and their work here serves as a light, refreshing change of pace. Do yourself a favor and enjoy it.

4/5 Stars

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Imission_impossible_rogue_nation_postern the last decade or so arguably the greatest action/spy/thriller franchises have been Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Mission Impossible. To their credit, each series has crafted several passable films fortified by a few real stalwarts of the spy thriller genre. Although many of these series thrive on gadgetry, set pieces, and a cynical tone more at home in the modern millennium, one thing that set some of the better films apart were interesting female characters.

James Bond is an icon. Jason Bourne is a modern icon. Tom Cruise as an action hero is an icon on his own merit. But we expect that to a certain degree. What the cinematic world has not had for as long are phenomenal female action heroes and the parameters seem far more complicated than simply being adequate at kicking butt. For instance, Casino Royale boasted Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) arguably the greatest of the Bond Girls because she was far from simple eye candy — a throwaway sidekick — she actually was witty and interesting and tragic. All those things.

It’s also no surprise that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie teamed up with Tom Cruise yet again to follow up the surprising success of Edge of Tomorrow which showcased another strong female lead in Emily Blunt.

Thus,  in some ways, it makes sense that Rebecca Ferguson steals the show in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. But it’s not any less surprising. There are numerous other major names. Obviously, Cruise first and foremost then Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, and Ving Rhames. But they’re all playing the parts that we’ve seen before. Computer geniuses. CIA Operatives. Rogue agents. Program Directors. There’s a shadowy villain played by Sean Harris and yet another organization with vague but nevertheless ominous intentions called “The Syndicate.” You get the picture.

But for the simple fact that female action stars are often few and far between on the big screen, Rebecca Ferguson is a true scene stealer. And she starts off quickly by subverting our expectations as an audience. She’s very pretty indeed but her role is not necessarily about her looks which is terribly refreshing. She’s smart, clever, enigmatic, and she seemingly has the most complicated trajectory in the entire film. As an audience, we don’t know where her loyalties lie although we have our suspicions. But more powerfully, she does not quite know herself. Best of all there are no overtly provocative scenes crammed into the story line with the sole objective to sell tickets.

Tom Cruise proves he can still carry a great action movie yet again and that’s because he’s playing it smart — surrounding himself with great talent — and benefiting from his supporting cast. Rogue Nation is not groundbreaking by any means but it’s wonderfully diverting with all the impossible missions, double crosses, and intrigue that we could want. What it sets out to do it does quite well and keeps us entertained in the process.

As a caveat, the fact that our main heroine is named Ilsa and because the film found its way to Casablanca amid its jet-setting, it made me eager for a little bit of Bogart & Bergman. Also, I wouldn’t mind catching a few reruns of Peter Graves. But that’s not to take away from this film. Enjoy it unabashedly. It really is a great deal of fun.

3.5/5 Stars

10 Films to Watch if You Like Classic Bond

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North by Northwest (1959): It’s no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock was offered the chance to direct Dr. No because he had singlehandedly propelled the spy thriller into the public eye through such classic as The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and Notorious. It’s also no surprise that he turned down the chance because had essentially made the greatest spy thriller ever. There was no reason to attempt to make another. Cary Grant. Eva Marie Sainte. Bernard Hermann. Ernest Lehman. Mt. Rushmore. Cropdusters. Just a few of the things that make this film awesome. It’s a must for all Bond fans.

That Man from Rio (1964): So there’s no doubt that Philippe de Broca’s film was made in a world conscious of the James Bond phenomenon but it’s also a charming blend of Tintin-esque action serials and wild humor that’s anchored by the charming pair of Jean-Pierre Belmondo and Francoise Dorleac. Its mixture of lavish location shooting, fun-filled action, and consistent humor makes it a must for all Bond lovers.

Charade (1963): By now we’ve all heard that this picture from Stanley Donen was the best Hitchcock film that he never made. Sure, that’s probably true if you want to put any stock in such an assertion but beyond that, we have Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn starring opposite each other in a spy comedy romance. It sounds like an absolutely delightful proposition and it is. It’s funny as a rom-com but still exhibits enough intrigue to pass as a compelling thriller.

The Ipcress File (1965): Sir Michael Caine as British spy Harry Palmer should be enough to pull audiences into this franchise. But if not that then consider this. Although it was made by some of the minds behind Bond, this franchise was supposed to be its antithesis in its representation of the spy life. It’s the anti-Bond if you will. Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain would follow in the subsequent years.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965): However, if you want something completely different from Bond with a sense of stark realism matched with a cynical edge you probably couldn’t get closer to the mark than watching this thriller based off the work of John Le Carre. Richard Burton is as disillusioned as any spy in the history of the movies and you get the strange sense that he has the right to be. If you looking for another tonal shift in the realm of spy thrillers look to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It’s demanding but certainly worthwhile.

Casino Royale (1967): We’re about to enter the territory of less demanding fare and the epitome of that is this initial Casino Royale (please don’t dare confuse this installment with Daniel Craig’s. Please don’t). All you need to know is that Peter Sellers plays Evelyn Tremble (ie James Bond), Ursula Andress is Vesper Lynd (ie James Bond), Orson Welles is Le Chiffre, Woody Allen is Jimmy Bond…must I go on or do you get the idea? If you had any preconception that this was a Bond movie you were mistaken.

Our Man Flint (1967): James Coburn the tough guy from such classics as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape landed his own headlining gig as a spy in his own right. See him in Charade (previously mentioned) and the continuing installment In Like Flint.

Murderers Row (1966): Dean Martin as super spy Matt Helm. Need I say more? Is it any surprise that he’s a dashing ladies man who also seems to like the high life and hitting the sauce. It grabs hold of the Bond phase like any good (or mediocre copycat) although it was based on a number of novels by Donald Hamilton. A number of sequels followed including The Silencers, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): Mike Myers as Austin Powers the most ludicrous, wacky, grooviest, and strangely perverse spy you’ve ever known. But his arch nemesis Dr. Evil is far worse. Pit them off against each other and you’re bound to have a stupid good time amid all the outrageous bits of parody. Oh yeah, check out The Spy Who Shagged Me and Austin Powers in Goldmember too. Groovy Baby!

Get Smart (2008): This is a public service announcement. No offense to Steve Carell or Anne Hathaway whatsoever, but please just go ahead and watch the TV show with the iconic duo of Don Adams and Barbara Feldon with Edward Platt. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were comic geniuses and they knew a good fad when they saw one. Spies might come and go but “Shoe Phones” and “Cones of Silence” will never die. Would you believe? Because you should.

Bonus – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) et al: It might not feel exactly like Bond and Indiana Jones is a big enough star in his own right but there’s no doubt that the special mixture of thrills, humor, and iconic status also falls on the mantle of Dr. Jones. Of course, it doesn’t hurt either that his father is played by none other than Sean Connery the guy who was in Marnie, The Hunt for Red October, and, yes, a few other movies.

This is only a few options so please don’t think you have a license to kill me for leaving something off. But hope you enjoyed this assortment of 10 classic flicks for every Bond lover.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge_of_Spies_poster.jpgSteven Spielberg is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock in many ways. True, he’s not as much of an audacious experimenter, but he most certainly knows the movie making craft. He understands suspense, good storytelling, and strong production values. Because he still is one of the most entertaining filmmakers to date, maintaining a grasp of all the integral details that make a Hollywood film interesting.

Hitchcock famously made two Cold War thrillers of his own in Torn Curtain and Topaz that were unfortunately rather disappointing. In this respect, Spielberg may have just bested the Master with his own espionage thriller Bridge of Spies. The secret is that he too grabs hold of an everyman story, utilizing one of his most magnetic collaborators Tom Hanks, but he also has an immense appreciation for the historical subtext. This is as much a historical drama as it is a human drama or a spy thriller. The fact that it functions on multiple levels gives it a greater degree of depth.

The film starts with a rather ordinary fellow (Mark Rylance) who we don’t know anything about, except he is rather old and likes to paint. Soon the FBI is on his tail and we quickly remember that this is 1958 — the Red Scare is real — the Cold War is freezing over. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are fresh on everyone’s mind as Rudolf Abel  (Rylance) is imprisoned on multiple accounts of conspiracy.

This is a big deal and the whole country is watching, nay, the whole world is watching including the Soviets. The job of defending Abel appears a thankless one and so the buck gets passed to an insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks). Whereas everyone else sees this as a sorry position to be in, Donovan understands it’s a stellar opportunity to reflect the ideals that the American justice system are founded on. Not everyone is so keen with his ideals, especially when it involves a Communist. It is in these early scenes where we understand the fear of a nuclear threat is real. Yes, the Red Scare is real. You begin to understand how it could take root in the American public. After his face is seen in the papers, Donovan receives the ire of the public and it affects his family.

Meanwhile, no one knows it but the FBI is proceeding with a highly sensitive mission in Soviet airspace. Any slight screw-up and nuclear war seems inevitable. But of course, the long-remembered Gary Powers is shot down in a U2 plane taking recon footage and all of the sudden things have gotten a lot hotter.

The second leg of the narrative follows Donovan as he tries to broker a deal between the two superpowers for a prisoner swap. Both countries are intent on keeping  a lid on their national secrets. If Donovan’s task was just an exchange between Gary Powers and Abel it would be, shall we say, simple, but there has to be an added wrinkle. There always is. We get at least a taste of what the Berlin Wall truly did in creating a fissure between families and friends in Germany. However, crucial to this story, it also trapped an American  student named Frederic Pryor in the GDR. Now Donovan has two men to try and retrieve, one bargaining chip in Abel, and two powers he must deal with. The Soviet Union are the main priority along with Powers, but his contacts in the GDR are still miffed about not being recognized by the U.S. They are not about to be pushed around.

Really we can break Bridge of Spies down to just a few men, but these seemingly simple actions and interactions are blown up and magnified to the nth degree on a highly political scale. If this is actually, in essence, how this war played out in real time then it is almost a ludicrously crazy ordeal.

Still, as Spielberg always does, he reverts his story back to the human component and Donovan, the man who put his vocational talents to good use in ways that had global impact. Imagine, he was a civilian, a man who was hardly given any authority by his own government, and yet his fortitude was ultimately rewarded. Then, at the end of a hard day’s work, he returned quietly to his wife and kids with the jar of marmalade he had promised to bring home.

Spielberg does well to evoke nostalgia, with the coats and the ties, the hats and ’50s sensibilities. And though we can guess the outcome of this biography before we get there, that doesn’t make the historical climate or how we get there any less gripping. That’s where this story succeeds. Furthermore, Mark Rylance’s performance is thoroughly grounded and his scrupled man of honor truly reflects socialism with a human face, all the while wielding a droll sense of humor.

It’s easy to look at the past events of world history with a more tempered eye. We can see the rationale of Donovan, the blind paranoia of the American public, and the unyielding tensions on all fronts. The day and age may have changed, but just have a look around. There are still tensions rising to this day. We still need the common man to enact change, now as much as ever. It’s that type of sentiment that really separates Spielberg from Hitchcock. His every man comes with heart.

4/5 Stars

Topaz (1969)

topaz1While Hitchcock’s Topaz also finds its roots in the Cold War like its predecessor Torn Curtain (1966), it revolves around more intricate professional espionage which in this case pertains specifically to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The establishing shot of the film makes it clear that we are somewhere, once more, behind the Iron Curtain as we see a waving flag emblazoned with the faces of Lenin, Marx, and Engels. Interestingly enough, although the film begins with a high Russian official fleeing the country with his family and includes the deal he cuts with the Americans, Topaz really focuses on something else entirely. It plays off this idea of a man caught in the middle of the Cold War. Except this is not an everyman, but a specialized agent trained in espionage. Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) is a Frenchmen who should seemingly be outside the fray of the opposing Superpowers.

But as anyone would probably try to explain, such issues of international relations and security are never so cut and dry. There is a lot more ambiguity involved and being an old friend with one of the American agents (John Forsythe), Devereux obliges to get involved with the whole affair in Cuba because he too is interested to see what the Russians are up to.

Agent Devereaux gets fully embroiled in Cold War espionage after making contact with Juanita (Karin Dor), the esteemed widow of a Cuban Revolutionary who now also happens to be a spy. Andre slips her aide a Geiger counter so that he can monitor the surrounding area to see if the Russians have nuclear warheads. And his results are conclusive. When by some lucky break Devereaux actually does get his evidence out of the country, Agent Nordstrom (Forsythe) confirms that the new information matches that from other sources including U2 plane surveillance. While the history stops there with Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Mission Crisis, the film continues, following Devereaux back to France where he suspects a Russian mole. Since Hitchcock was always more of a showman than a political filmmaker, it makes sense that he grabs hold of the spy thriller thread in one final act. It channels paranoia very similar to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold although it is a glossier affair with intrigue crisscrossed with illicit romance.

topaz2Whereas the previous Torn Curtain was generally concerned with life behind the Iron Curtain, Topaz is decidedly more continental moving swiftly between Russia, France, America, Cuba, including a few pitstops at international embassies. However, the film does end up spending a lot of time focused on Cuba which can very easily be juxtaposed with the East German scenes in the former film. Hitchcock once more creates an illusion of reality using the Universal backlot and the adjoining area to craft Cuba, and he makes into a place of sunshine and romantic verandas, but it also runs rampant with totalitarian militia. It’s perhaps more exotic and welcoming than East Germany, but no less repressed. In both cases, they become a perilous locale for our protagonists. Still, rather unlike the previous film, Topaz lacks a truly A-list star like Paul Newman or Julie Andrews.

It’s as if Hitch has lost a number of things that made some of his best films, a stellar cast backed by a truly inspired script, carried out with his typical ingenuity. However, this film holds a special place in my heart as my first introduction to Claude Jade. That alone made it a worthy piece of viewing, but it also stands as a historical relic.

3/5 Stars