Counselor at Law (1933)

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The law offices of Simon and Tedesco are at the core of this film but it’s really George Simon who’s of particular interest to us. Based off a play by Elmer Rice, Counselor at Law is a self-contained office drama of great energetic verve. It’s handled assuredly by a young Hollywood director on the rise named William Wyler — a man who continued to make quality films throughout the 30s and by the 40s and 50s became lauded among Hollywood’s finest filmmakers. Here you can already see him reining in the chaos to hone in on a lucid story that’s witty and at times admittedly tragic.

We’re quickly introduced to an office positively buzzing with activity which sets the scene nicely. There are frequent coming and goings from office to office, mail deliveries, telephone lines crisscrossing this way and that with a reception area full of people.

It soon becomes apparent that there’s a head-spinning regiment of phone calls, appointments, and anything else you can imagine going on in this busy beehive on any given day. It makes a day at work seem like the most rewarding social experiment that you could possibly conduct in that revered tradition of people watching. Because as an audience that’s what we get the privilege to do as Rice’s adapted script constructs the beats of the story as a delightful web of interactions.

John Barrymore gives a frenetic performance as the whirling dervish of a lawyer Mr. Simon. And it feels like a stroke of genius that we never see him enter a court of law but only observe the various people and types he must work with to get his job done. It makes for an engrossing human drama that puts us in touch with a myriad of narratives all at once.

Instead, we get to know so much about his makeup and personal character. He receives multiple visits from his kindly mother who he playfully ribs or from his wife who he lavishes with affection constantly while she remains notably aloof. But that’s simply his way. He’s a mile a minute generally magnanimous soul who does his job well. Many folks in the town are indebted to him and though he’s successful, you get the sense he hasn’t forgotten about the little fellow on his way to the top.

This sentiment lays the groundwork for the film as a piece of commentary. It gets its source from a boy from the old neighborhood who got brought in by the cops for spewing communist sentiments on a street corner. Now his poor mother is asking a favor of Mr. Simon. He obliges only to get ridiculed and belittled by the proud young man.

As such Counselor at Law has a bit of a socio-economic angle as well suggesting the longheld stratosphere that was imposed the day that the first Europeans came off the Mayflower. Any following party has a harder time making it and yet some of the more assiduous ones do. It’s staying there that can be difficult.

But the attacks come from the bottom too. From the fiery youths who look at a self-made man such as Simon as someone who has sold out on his kind; he’s a dirty traitor. There’s no way to win. The American way seems a tough road to traverse and still come out a winner.

One such passing interaction with a past client, in particular, changes his entire day for the worse and a crucial fact that went unbeknownst to him could spell curtains to his career. In a matter of minutes, disbarment seems to be looming over him. He can’t take it.

But the film also has another layer. Love stories are playing out and there are two levels to it. Obviously, there is Simon and his wife who he adores and her “other man.” Then, there’s Rexy (Bebe Daniels), Mr. Simon’s faithful secretary constantly brushing off the frequent advances of a bookish but persistent Mr. Weinberg. But there’s also an unrequited love that’s unspoken and seems the most devastating of them all.

Ultimately, we are privy to the blessing and the curse of the workaholic. By the end of the film, Simon’s true love is still his work even if there’s a hint at something more. Whether or not he can maintain his lifestyle is left to the imagination and perhaps it is better that way. We leave him on the upswing but with questions still to ask. It suggests that the American Dream isn’t always quite what it seems. It can be equal parts joy and tragedy. The question is whether or not it is worth the risk.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Rope (1948)

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Rope’s title sequence is composed of your prototypically serene establishing shot. But really, you could not have a more unique and in some sense unnerving picture. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into Technicolor and it’s quite the looker as are the beautifully constructed backdrops that spice up the mise-en-scene for this glorified stage play.  He also busied himself with camera set-ups in an effort to shoot the picture as near to a single take as was possible with the technology of the time. He actually “cheated” a bit by splicing segments of film together at intentional breaks to give the effect of continuous motion. Still, it’s an impressive endeavor all the same.

But the experiment is twofold both behind and in front of the camera. It’s all a reworking of the murderers Leopold and Loeb, two affluent students who succumbed to Nietzsche’s superman complex. The project was an early script by playwright Arthur Laurents penned from an adaptation by Hume Cronyn, a Hitchcock regular in several earlier pictures (Shadow of a Doubt and Lifeboat).

In this case, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) are looking for the perfect victim in the perfect murder. Where murder is a crime for most men but a privilege for a few — like themselves.  It all begins with a shockingly graphic opening for the 40s that rips away any shred of upper-middle-class sensibilities put upon us by that establishing shot. It’s all a ruse.

The assertive, far more charismatic Brandon also happens to be the main architect pulling along the flighty Phillip into his little experiment.

The act of throwing a small get-together against this exhilarating backdrop proves tenuous because of the insidiously dark deed that Hitchcock has made his audience privy to. Otherwise, this would be a run-of-the-mill picture of cocktails and hor ‘d oeuvres. But underline it with a murder and it’s a completely different proposition altogether.

Their exhibition comes as little surprise from two men who are snobbish, entitled jerks. Their lives are so dull that they stoop to murder to see if they can be brilliant enough and brazen enough to pull it off, going so far as inviting their most astute mentor played by none other than James Stewart.

Though I enjoy him as much as the next fellow, Stewart does feel oddly out of place in this film and within this role of Rupert. He seems to know it too. Nevertheless, Hitchcock would find far superior uses for him in due time.

There are also a couple knowing winks to the sinisterly attractive James Mason (a future Hitchcock collaborator) who is conjured up to do battle against the dreamboats Erroll Flynn and Cary Grant by a few admiring partygoers. Of course, no one seems to take into account that they have Jimmy Stewart right in their stead.

We begin to feel for Janet and Kenneth two schoolmates who have been used in the game. She is soon to be engaged to the formerly eligible David. Kenneth was the beau she was with before he broke it off. Now their lives are manipulated just like the late boy’s father who is also invited to the gathering.

Rupert proves that he knows something’s afoot not that it’s all that difficult to see Granger’s character slowly coming apart at the seams. Alcohol hardly helps his unstable demeanor. It becomes a showdown with his two pupils but he could have never expected this. It’s on this level that Rope is thoroughly troubling. It’s in this way that we begin to understand why Nietzsche might have been troubled by his own conclusions. There is little hope in this conception of the world.

Simply put, the film is dour to its core. It has no heart and in that sense, Jimmy Stewart does not feel at home within its heartless frames. The charade falls short for these very reasons. Though it’s technically ambitious, it doesn’t quite manage that perfect Hitchcock balancing act of crime mixed with wit. There’s no way it can with such a worldview.

Still, Rope shows, if anything, that Hitchcock is never complacent, always looking for the next great challenge. That is one of the many reasons that we still hold him in high regard as one of the foremost directors of any age. Because even a callous film such as Rope is worth seeing.

3.5/5 Stars

Picnic (1955)

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_PicnicIt’s easy to assume that Picnic is a film that time had not been very kind to. If you do a cursory glance at contemporary reviews, the majority appear far from glowing and my own reason for returning to this romance was based on a mild interest in a cultural artifact rather than an actual investment in the film itself.

As such it’s also easy to label Picnic as a contrived melodrama ripe with implausibilities and theatrical notes. One of those hot and sweaty numbers out the Tenessee Williams school of drama. This couldn’t possibly be real life. Even the romance feels a bit thin as if falling in love with someone through a simple dance could actually happen over the course of a single day. Yes, William Holden plays the energizer bunny inside the body of a has-been jock impressively but he’s a bit old for the part. Yes, Kim Novak is an aloof beauty extraordinaire but she still somehow feels out of place as a Kansas beauty queen. Rosalind Russell is and always will be a dynamo.

It’s Labor Day weekend in rural Kansas when drifter Hal Carter (Holden) stumbles off a train to call upon an old college chum named Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) for a job. Upon his arrival, he offers to get rid of a lady’s trash in exchange for a meal.

Due to the summer heat, it seems reasonable enough that the kindly old woman (Verna Felton) tells him to strip down to the waist but a shirtless William Holden makes a stir in town from the very first ogle. Of course, it works both ways. Madge (Novak) is the local beauty and her endlessly concerned mother wants her eldest daughter to use her looks to get a nice young man like Alan.

That’s one of the prevailing notions of the times. Women must get married. They must find a nice man with means and do it while they’re young and time is still in their favor. Better yet if they’re desirable.

The alternative is winding up like Millie (Susan Strasberg), Madge’s younger sister, who keeps her nose in books, having already landed a scholarship to college while disdaining boys and avoiding them like the plague. Further still, there’s the fate of winding up like the local school teacher, the histrionic Rosemarie (Russell) who boards with the Owens and yearns for a dream man to replace the scruffy but nevertheless good-natured Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), who frequently calls on her. Consequently,  Ms. Potts is one of the most agreeable characters and seems the most fulfilled (even without a husband).

However, the arrival of Hal draws out such a visible reaction from all the other women he meets and it feels severe but more than anything you can see it as wholly representative of the sexual repression of the age. It’s so jarring since in some respects the magnetism of Carter feels relatively tame and the outcry against him uncalled for but that comes out of our own sex-saturated culture.

Upon ruminating on the movie a bit longer I began to consider what it truly means when we label a film to be “dated.” We look at scenes in Picnic and are quick to write them off as an indication of the time. Maybe it’s a bit of the historian coming out in me but isn’t that part of the magic of a film like this? It can act as a time capsule. It can come to us from the era it was made in. What’s wrong with that?

As usual James Wong Howe’s color photography does an impeccable job of giving us a sense of what that life was like as does the direction of Joshua Logan since the stage version of Picnic had been his baby. They interpret the quality times that communities have together with bands, songs, games, and the best kind of food made by the most loving hands.

People called on one another, courted, were generally courteous, and there was a sense of integrity. Yes, people were often frustrated and uncomfortable but we could say the same about today too, except now the same feelings come for different reasons. Neither a culture of asceticism nor utter hedonism will find us completely content.

In the end, I stole a page out of the Astaire & Rogers musicals to try and comprehend Picnic. Unquestionably the “Moonglow” sequence is beloved and I think we can look at it utilizing a certain lens. In an age that was supposedly “repressed” a dance was a highly evocative way to express the passion of two people and like many of the most guttural cinematic sequences, this one is visually impactful with nary a line of dialogue allowing us to be captured fully in the moment.

Howe’s final stroke of ingenuity is to show our two lovers simultaneously riding off by train and bus to their life together, within the same frame. Whether they can make it work and be happy is still in question. But part of the beauty of this existence is that we each have to make our own path in the pursuit of love and everything else that’s worth living for. To use an unforgivable metaphor, life isn’t always a picnic but the dance of life will continue regardless.

3.5/5 Stars

MY ENTRY IN THE 3RD GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON!

Limelight (1952)

limelight 1The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth centers 

A story of a ballerina and a clown… 

In Limelight it quickly becomes evident that Charles Chaplin was well aware of his own legend and how couldn’t he be? For years he had been held in the highest regards, loved by the masses worldwide as one of Hollywood’s founding royalty. He was at the center of the universe and the limelight was burning brightly around him.

I’ve recently been reacquainting myself with Chaplin’s early works most notably those that paired him with the indelible Edna Purviance as well as the gargantuan behemoth of a bully Eric Campbell. But Limelight is a major flashforward in his career, really at the end of it all. By now Chaplin is in his twilight years.

In fact, Limelight is one of his last prominent roles and the feature where he audaciously placed everything in the public eye–a picture that is unequivocally autobiographical in nature, accented with Chaplin’s own romantic dealings and tumultuous history from his entire career up to that point. And yes, he faced scandal in his later years, not simply for his past indiscretions but also more overtly for his political affiliations which unquestionably must have made him an easy target during the supercharged age of McCarthyism.

Still, in a simple heartfelt narrative once more, for one last time, Charlie Chaplin captured his audience. The title card reads much like his old silents would have in setting the scene. It’s 1914, back in the days when he was probably just making it big in real life. However, as Calvero, Chaplin is a washed-up comedian prone to alcoholism with a career that has suffered dearly. But in a moment of action, he saves an aspiring dancer (Claire Bloom) from a self-attempted suicide and from then on becomes a sort of guardian angel for the girl.

Calvero heeds the doctor and allows the girl to stay in his flat, away from the trauma and although it receives the ire of their landlady, he calls Thereza his wife in order not to cause a local stir. It’s one half human drama, other half stage production because while he looks to lift her spirits in any manner possible, he daydreams of his past forays in comedy. He was the man who could pull off a whole gag with a pretense of performing fleas and he had wall to wall crowds.

limelight 2But now no one’s there. The seats are empty, the aisles quiet, and he sits with a dazed look in his flat the only recourse but to go back to bed. It’s as if the poster on the wall reading Calvero – Tramp Comedian is paying a bit of homage to his own legend but also the very reality of his waning, or at the very least, scandalized stardom. It adds insult to injury.

Still, in real life and on celluloid he put up the front of respectability for people. Although he went through 5 wives and now has a young woman living in his home less than half his age, he believes that after all his years of experience, “a platonic friendship can be sustained on the highest moral plane” as he puts it.

And it’s true Calvero is perfectly civil. This isn’t some passionate romance though he does try and call Terry to action in other ways. Chaplin composed his scripts of many great lines, monologues and sonnets where he himself gets to deliver beautiful rhetoric and impassioned rallying cries of truth to anyone who is listening. In this case, it’s the girl who sits despairingly in her bed but it’s for everyone else too. It’s like he took the stalwart speech from The Great Dictator and economized it into smaller bite sized pieces (That’s the problem with the world. We all despise ourselves, There’s something just as inevitable as death. Life! Life! Life!).

But there is something rather tragically demoralizing about watching crowds walk out on Chaplin even if it’s his fictional alter ego because you get the sense that his once faithful viewing public undoubtedly did the same thing–driven by the tides of the times and their own fickle ways.

But even as his fictional self fades, he watches Thereza ascend to the top of the dancing world as a prima ballerina and she looks to take her beloved Calvero along with her. There’s a necessity in life to never subsist, never cease fighting that she learns from him and takes to heart. So the second half is the role reversal. He began as her good samaritan and now in her bounty, she looks to take care of him going so far as professing her love for him and her desire to get married.

limelight 3It’s important to know that he writes off such an assertion as nonsense and one can question whether this is Chaplin’s chance at revisionist history or more so an affirmation of his life’s actual trajectory–working through his current reality that the world questions (IE. Marrying a woman much younger than himself in Oona O’Neil who he nevertheless dearly loved).

It’s ingenious really because there’s positively no way not to empathize with him, no matter our position and as he always was a premier master at, Chaplin once more tugs at our heartstrings in a very personal way–pathos overflowing from his performance one last time. He casts himself as the great sacrificial martyr and stepping down from his post as one of the luminaries of the cinema, his legacy burning brightly in his wake.

It’s also easy to suspect the tragedy of the Blue Angel or the madness of The Red Shoes displayed for all to see on the center stage will reveal itself in due time but Chaplin allows himself go out on his own terms since he’s a master of his own fate, in the film at least.

He’s reflected on his life and deemed it as about as good as it can be. That’s enough. Whether it’s his earlier marital troubles, his current marriage, the criticisms of the public, or even a real or fabricated feud between himself and Buster Keaton if there ever was such a thing. It is all laid to rest. It’s like old times even as the new age begins.

4/5 Stars

 

Review: The Odd Couple (1968)

8ca16-oddcouple1By now The Odd Couple is rather like returning to an old group of friends. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau never had a better pairing than their turns as Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison. The roles seem to fit each man to the tee or at least they make them their own. Lemmon is as hilarious as ever playing the neat freak, hypochondriac who was recently divorced. He drove his wife crazy because he cooked better than her, cleaned more, and was allergic to her perfume. She had to put on his aftershave instead. Then, there’s Matthau reprising his stage role of Oscar the slob of a sportswriter with an affinity for messiness. Droopy jowls courtesy of Matthau. Put them together and you have some of the greatest comedic fireworks ever, and it’s so simple. You see, all the poker playing gang is nervous that Felix will commit suicide, which he attempts during the film’s opening sequence, but he cannot get the window open. Thus, Oscar obliges to take in his buddy with the rest of the buddies keeping a wary eye on Felix. It’s hilarious to watch them because they really care about Felix, but they have no idea how to act around him. They think every move will be his last.

Oscar does not know what he’s gotten into since Felix cleans up after him, follows him with an ashtray when he smokes, does the dishes, vacuums, sprays air freshener incessantly, and even distracts Oscar from a triple pay while telling him the evening’s dinner plans. Then there’s Felix allergies, his high maintenance, and yes, his pouting. He even ruins weekly poker night with cigar smoke replaced by fresh air and disinfected playing cards.

Bring in the twittering Pigeon Sisters Gwendolyn and Cecily and you’re bound to have more laughs, until Felix the killjoy hurts the mood. Now we truly begin to see Oscar’s sour side which was mostly saved for his former wife Blanche. Now it is specially reserved for Felix and his maddening cleanliness that’s gone too far. Oscar has a nervous breakdown and blows his top chasing Felix out. But Oscar is not a bad guy, Felix is his friend after all, and so enter the poker buddies once more to go searching for Felix. He has been taken in by the Pigeons and the two friends make up. As it turns out, the two men rubbed off on each other, but there’ no chance of completely changing them. They will always be The Odd Couple, just separate now.

The Odd Couple has such a wonderful mythology surrounding it thanks to Neil Simon’s play, the film adaption, and then the television show. Furthermore, it is one of those very special cases that was great on both the big and small screen, since Jack Klugman and Tony Randall were wonderful in their own right. Focusing on this film, the dialogue is not forcing the humor, and it ultimately leads to genuinely funny lines coming out of the circumstances. The poker playing buddies are a riot from Florida-bound Vinnie (John Fielder) to nervous cop Murray (Herb Edelman). The opening of the film is made by Neal Hefti’s theme, and I’ve got to say, the sequence where Felix has his sinus attack is priceless. Without fail it puts me in stitches everytime as the weirded out Oscar looks on along with everyone else. I cannot help but love The Odd Couple. By now it’s too ingrained in me and that’s fine by me.

4.5/5 Stars

The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Petrified Forest (1936)If I dare say this film begins as a rather dull budding love story between a philosophical drifting author (Leslie Howard) and a inquisitive young server (Bette Davis) at a roadside gas station in Arizona. It looks like it’s not to be as he is intent on moving on but then comes murderer Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) with his thugs and things heat up a little bit. His arrival brings up some interesting points of contention and Leslie gains some new found conviction. But that’s not the half of it.

This film comes from the stage with Bogart reprising his star making role as a gangster. It is often talky and sometimes stagnant but the supporting characters and Bogart have enough personality to at least make it passable and a tad interesting. I was never a great fan of Davis, but I have to admit at least she does not look scary in this one. She’s still young and on the rise when this film came out. Leslie Howard is enjoyable with his pleasant delivery but Bogart really lights it up. His glowering face and growling voice are hard to clear from your mind. That’s for sure.

The film also has immense commentary on the survival of the fittest, women, the mythical Old West and fascist ideology that are a sign of the times.

3.5/5 Stars

Auntie Mame (1958)

32347-auntie_mameWith Rosalind Russell reprising her role from the stage, this film is made by her scene stealing portrayal. The film opens when a rich man dies suddenly and his young son is sent to live with his Auntie Mame. She is a social, energetic and free-spirited woman. Despite the fact that Patrick was raised proper, Auntie Mame soon teaches him how to enjoy life and they grow close to each other.

However, Patrick is taken to a boarding school against the wishes of his aunt. They still remain close as Mame tries to get work and then she meets a southern gentleman. Patrick is growing up as Mame travels the world with Beau. He is killed in an accident so Mame returns home to work on a memoir. She soon realizes how grown up her little Patrick is because there is a girl he is intent on marrying.

Mame does not voice her displeasure with this upper class girl and her superficial parents. Instead she invites them all to dinner and by sabotaging everything Mame makes Patrick realize he is not like these people. He once again embraces her idea that life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death. You have to get out and live a little.

This film was shot almost like a stage play and I found it rather long but Russell is superb and she holds the film together nicely.

4/5 Stars

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

d69d4-raisin_in_the_sun_1961_poster_horizontal_bStarring Sidney Poitier and adapted from a stage play, the film chronicles the lives of an African American family residing in Chicago. The whole family including the matriarch, her unsatisfied son, his wife, his son, and his sister wait excitedly for an insurance check for $10,000. The mother receives the money and resolves to use it in order to buy a nice home for her family in a white community. She then gives the rest to her son who has big plans for it. However, he loses it all leaving the family bitter and worried. In the end Walter does show his integrity and despite the bad situation, the family remains close. A great deal of this film is about the conflict of ideas and interests of the different individuals. It is also memorable since the cast is almost all African American. Poitier is good but it seems the mother steals the show.
 
4/5 Stars
 

Mister Roberts (1955)

Starring an all star cast including Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon, this comedy-drama chronicles the happenings on an unimportant boat during World War II. Mr. Roberts (Fonda) is one of the officers on The Reluctant and he is good to his men but constantly at odds with the difficult captain (Cagney). The ship doctor (Powell) is a kind and sagely old fellow while Ensign Pulver (Lemmon) is spineless, lazy, and still somewhat likable. due to an agreement with the captain, Roberts loses the respect of his men. However, when they realize what he has done for them, they honor him and help him get transferred so he can see some action. Pulver who is happy for Roberts, had tried to impress him earlier. After some bad news Pulver finally does something and it is fearless. I enjoyed this film because of the cast and its good combination of drama and comedy.

4/5 Stars