6 Decades Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

Thank you to Classic Film and TV Cafe for hosting this year’s 6 Films — 6 Decades Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day!

It’s been a perennial enjoyment the last few years to hear the topic and then go to work curating a personal list. In keeping with the impetus of the occasion, I wanted to share some lesser-known films that I’ve enjoyed over the course of the last year or two.

This is a list of new favorites if you will, ranging from the 20s to the 70s, and like every year, I will do my best to fudge the rules to get as many extra recommendations in as I can. I hope you don’t hold it against me and hopefully, you will find some of these films as enjoyable as I did.

Without further ado, here are my picks, and once more, Happy National Classic Movie Day!

Go West (1925)

Riding High With Buster Keaton in “Go West” – Cowboys and Indians Magazine

I feel like in the 21st century — and this is only a personal observation — Buster Keaton has grown in esteem. Chaplin was always the zenith of cinematic pathos and heart. He cannot be disregarded as the one-time king of the movies. But Keaton, with his Stone Face and irrepressible spirit, is also strangely compelling in the modern arena we find ourselves in.

In pictures like Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill Jr., he’s part magician, part daredevil stuntman, who, in the age before CGI, dared to play with our expectations and put himself in all sorts of visual gags for our amusement. It’s extraordinary to watch him even a century later. But whereas The Tramp was taken with Edna Purviance, the pretty blind girl (Virginia Cherill), or even Paulette Goddard’s feisty Gamin, Buster Keaton’s finest leading lady could arguably be a cow.

Go West earns its title from the potentially apocryphal quote from Horace Greeley, but the glories of the movie are born out of Keaton’s ability to take on all the nascent tropes of the Western landscape. He’s the anti-cowboy, the city slicker, the cast aside everyman, who doesn’t quite fit the world. And yet he’s still a hero, and he gets the girl in the end. You might think I’m being facetious, but I’m not. Keaton seems to love that cow, and it’s strangely poignant.

The Stranger’s Return (1933)

It’s remarkable to me that a film like The Stranger’s Return rarely seems to get many plaudits. Lionel Barrymore is a hoot as a cantankerous Iowa farmer, playing what feels like the affectionate archetype for all such roles and welcoming his city-dwelling granddaughter into the fold.

Miriam Hopkins has rarely been so amiable and opposite Franchot Tone, King Vidor develops this profound congeniality of spirit played against these elemental images of rural American life. It’s a collision of two worlds and yet any chafing comes more so from the hardened hearts of relatives than the nature of one’s upbringing. It moved me a great deal even as I consider the different worlds I’ve been blessed to frequent.

If you want to go down other cinematic rabbit holes, I would also recommend Ernst Lubitsch’s The Broken Lullaby with Barrymore. For Miriam Hopkins, you might consider The Story of Temple Drake, and for director King Vidor, I was equally fascinated by the Depression-era saga Our Daily Bread.

The Children Are Watching Us (1944)

Janus Films — The Children Are Watching Us

During the beginning of 2021, I went on a bit of an Italian neorealist odyssey, beginning with some of the less appreciated films of Vittorio De Sica (at least by me). While Bicycle Thieves is a high watermark, even an early film like The Children Are Watching Us shows his innate concern for human beings of all stripes.

This is not a portrait of economic poverty as much as it depicts poverty of relationships and emotion. In what might feel like a predecessor to two British classics in Brief Encounter and Fallen Idol, a young boy’s childhood is fractured by his mother’s infidelity. While his father tries to save their marriage and they gain a brief respite on a family vacation, these attempts at reconciliation are not enough to save their crumbling family unit.

What’s most devastating is how this young boy is left so vulnerable — caught in the middle of warring parents — and stricken with anxiety. In a tumultuous, wartime landscape, it’s no less miraculous De Sica got the movie made. It’s not exactly a portrait of the perfect fascist family. Instead, what it boasts are the pathos and humanity that would color the actor-director’s entire career going forward.

Violent Saturday (1955)

Violent Saturday (1955) | MUBI

Color noir is a kind of personal preoccupation of mine: Inferno, Slightly Scarlet, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, Hell on Frisco Bay, and a Kiss Before Dying all are blessed with another dimension because of their cinematography. Violent Saturday is arguably the most compelling of the lot of them because of how it so fluidly intertwines this microcosm of post-war America with the ugliness of crime.

Richard Fleischer’s film takes ample time to introduce us to the town — its inhabitants — and what is going on behind the scenes. Three men, led by Stephen McNally and Lee Marvin, spearhead a bank robbery plot. But we simultaneously are privy to all the dirty laundry dredged up in a community like this.

These criminals are the obvious villains, and yet we come to understand there’s a moral gradient throughout the entire community. The out-of-towners are not the totality of evil just as the townsfolk aren’t unconditionally saintly. The picture boasts a cast of multitudes including Victor Mature, Richard Egan, Silvia Sidney, Virginia Leith, Tommy Noonan, and Ernest Borgnine. The ending comes with emotional consequence.

Nothing But a Man (1964)

THROWBACK MOVIE REVIEW: NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964) AND DEPICTIONS OF RACISM | AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Nothing But a Man was a recent revelation. It was a film that I meant to watch for years — there were always vague notions that it was an early addition to the National Film Registry — and yet one very rarely hears a word about it. The story is rudimentary, about a black man returning to his roots in The South, trying to make a living, and ultimately falling in love.

However, the film also feels like a bit of a time capsule. Although filmed up north, it gives us a stark impression of what life in the Jim Crow South remained for a black man in the 1960s. The March on Washington was only the year before and The Voting Rights Act has little bearing on this man’s day-to-day. The smallest act of defiance against the prevailing white community will easily get him blackballed.

I’ve appreciated Ivan Dixon for his supporting spot on Hogan’s Heroes and his prolific directorial career (Even his brief stints in A Raisin in The Sun, Too Late Blues, and A Patch of Blue). Still, Nothing But a Man, showcases his talents like no other. Likewise, I only just registered Abbey Lincoln as a jazz talent, but I have a new appreciation for her. She exhibits a poise and a genuine concern that lends real weight to their relationship. It’s not simply about drama; it’s the privilege to observe these moments with them — to feel their elation, their pain, and their inalienable yearning for dignity.

Les Choses de la Vie (1970)

Les Choses de la Vie | Institut français du Royaume-Uni

Even in the aftermath of the cultural zeitgeist that exploded out of the French New Wave, the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette et al. released a steady stream of films. One of the filmmakers you hear a great deal less about — and one who was never associated with this hallowed group — was Claude Sautet.

Still, in his work with the likes of Romy Schneider and Michel Piccoli, he carved out a place worthy of at least some recognition in the annals of French cinema. If one would attempt to describe his work with something like The Things of Life, you could grasp at a term like “melodrama,” but it is never in the fashion of Douglas Sirk. It’s a film of melancholy and a subtler approach to splintering romance.

It somehow takes the motifs of Godard’s Weekend with the constant vicissitude of the continental Two for The Road to alight on its own tale of love nailed down by the performances of Piccoli and Schneider. They are both caught in the kind of fated cycle that bears this lingering sense of tragedy.

Honorable Mentions (in no exact order):

  • Dishonored (1931) Dir. by Josef Von Sternberg
  • Pilgrimage (1933) Dir. by John Ford
  • TIll We Meet Again (1944) Dir. by Frank Borzage
  • Bonjour Tritesse (1958) Dir. by Otto Preminger
  • Scaramouche (1952) Dir. by George Sidney
  • Pale Flower (1964) Dir. by Masahiro Shinoda
  • Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) Dir. by Vincente Minnelli
  • Girl With a Suitcase (1961) Dir. by Valerio Zurlini
  • Sergeant Rutledge (1960) Dir. by John Ford
  • Buck and The Preacher (1972) Dir. by Sidney Poitier
  • Cooley High (1975) Dir. by Michael Schultz
  • My Name is Nobody (1973) Dir. by Tonino Valerii

Winchester 73 (1950): James Stewart The Western Antihero

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Winchester 73 has the initially dubious reputation of being a portmanteau western. Whether or not this is a one-of-a-kind distinction, any number of popular culture vehicles have employed the device in often gimmicky fashion. It makes for a La Ronde-esque sitcom episode in a pinch.

However, this James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration succumbs to no such fate. It’s positively stuffed with quality talent and vignettes woven quite closely together. There is a compounding weight to them even as characters both minor and substantial all but stand on their own two feet.

Equally compelling is Anthony Mann’s usual dynamism — continued from his film noir days — and also the very specific mise-en-scene he develops. The opening shot behind the credit is an exquisite first impression with a pair of silhouettes trodding along the ridge in a perfect arc off into the distance. It’s a type of instant exposition in the most primal sense: two men riding toward their unseen destination.

The two strangers sidle into town, the hard-bitten gentleman Linn McAdams (Stewart) and his trusty sidekick (Millard Mitchell), who takes a calculated stance on just about everything. We know they’ve seen a lot of the world together and all sorts of people…

One of them just happens to be Dutch Henry Brown (Stephan McNally, who they happen on in the local watering hole. In another western, guns at the ready, they would have obliterated each other on the spot. However, in this picture, where a fairly obstinate rein of law and order rules, they are forced to bide their time outside the watchful eye of the city limits.

Will Geer does surprisingly well as a wry and affable Wyatt Earp. His characterization is just personal enough to take some of the mystique out of the legend and make him into a real human being we can appreciate in relatable terms.

But these scenes are a mere setup for a whole slew of encounters. It’s as if we lose our characters for a time as McAdams and High-Spade ride along the trail. However, Mann has a lot of fertile material to work with.

It transcends the simple conceit and builds into a genuine story rife with conflict, both personal and circumstantial. The story obliges by rolling over on itself as it continues to introduce new players at its own leisure.

In one roadside establishment, an insouciant horse trader (John McIntire) sits at the table playing solitaire. He sits by ready to play middle man to the Indians emboldened by Crazy Horse’s victory at the Little Bighorn, while gladly supplying Dutch Henry and his cronies desperately-needed weapons of their own.

It just so happens a Winchester becomes a fine bargaining piece. And yet even a secondary character like him is provided subtext. A man like him — a purported half breed — is deemed as an outsider by two nations.

Certainly, the Indians always carry the subjugated and degraded station in the western. Winchester 73 has its own issues assuredly, starting with Rock Hudson playing a Native American. However, the one equalizer is the universal avarice for the Winchester Rifle. Everyone wants it; some even to the point of death.

Other involved parties are a couple fleeing for their lives — a forthright woman with a gleam in her eye (Shelley Winters) and her craven man (Charles Drake). Alongside our heroes, they find some shelter in the company of a cavalry unit pinned down by the same Indians (a youthful Tony Curtis among them). Their leader, a crusty old vet (Jay C. Flippen), is astute enough to take advice from the men around him, and they make a valiant defense of their position to live another day.

It’s about this point in time where a viewer might realize we still have yet to see that perennial sleazy scene-stealer Dan Duryea and he makes his auspicious entrance as his usually snide gunman, the left-handed Waco Johnnie Dean pinned down in a farmhouse with his gang. There’s more hell to pay.

The glorious fact is how the film peaks at so many points. We have the battle over the rifle’s rightful owner in town, first, through competition then treachery. What follows is a Custer-like resistance with far better results, a homestead hostage standoff against authorities, the makings of a bank robbery, and, of course, the ultimate showdown on a craggy rock face.

These moments are easy to acknowledge because they are so prolific but what makes these exclamation points are the very fact the script knocked out by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards and as executed by the actors and its director, finds the time for conversation, lulls, and lit cigarettes.

By no means does it search out the utterly stylized extremes of Sergio Leone, but it understands the same dramatic gradient. Action means so much more if we have time and space to truly appreciate its impact.

What also matters are the stakes at play. Thankfully, Winchester ’73 makes itself about more than just a gun. A gun is a stand-in and indication of any number of grievances and human vices. It brings out all the issues already in play.

James Stewart was still fairly fresh off WWII. He was a different man from the gee-shucks everyman — more complicated and torn than he had ever been before. The films he made upon his return had yet to truly catch fire until Winchester ’73. It was a portent and signaled a true resurgence for the actor. Joining with the likes of Mann and Hitchcock, he very effectively redefined his image in a fundamentally intriguing way.

He became a man of vengeance with goodness soured by hate and desires tainted by darkness. When you look into his eyes in any of the number of pictures he made with Mann and Hitch, you begin to recognize something else. It’s not unadulterated innocence or even indignance. His eyes now burn with fury and genuine malice. His hands are calloused, comfortable cramming bullets into the stock of his gun. Because he’s not afraid of using it.

Reconsidering the mise-en-scene, it’s a joy to watch how Mann handles shots in such a blistering manner. But there is also a closeness and with it a violent intimacy to his direction. One scene might have a sleepy-eyed cowboy all but stretched out in the foreground as the camera peers over him into a cabin as two men converse.

Then, we have a bar room mauling in the most claustrophobic manner. Foreheads sweating, bodies writhing in palpable pain, and blood-vessels bulging with rage. It’s astounding how the man’s films almost inevitably feature such images and yet, despite their prevalence, I never grow tired of them.

They put many more technical or cashed-out sequences to shame because what is not scrimped on is the very transparent humanity in its most righteous and ugly iterations. Mann understands that there is not only primacy in the images of the West — we often think rolling plains and panoramas — but the western would mean nothing without morality. Hard unyielding codes, or a lack thereof, warring against each other. Where do these originate from if not the hearts and souls of men?

What Winchester ’73 hints at is how even a man like James Stewart can be consumed by demons. Over the course of a film, a story of a mere rifle, repeatedly develops character until it settles on something splitting right to his core identity. The beauty is in how swatches of dialogue, interweaving character arcs, and splashes of light and dark help in illustrating his singular journey.

This was the first in a thoroughly distinguished partnership between the western’s newfound antihero, Stewart, and one of the genres unsung mavericks in Mann. It just might be the best of the batch, which is saying something.

4.5/5 Stars

Johnny Belinda (1948) and Evoking Silent Cinema

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I must admit to committing an unforgivable fallacy. Maybe I’m the only perpetrator, but there might be others too. In my own mental computations, I often attribute Jane Wyman as the first wife of Ronald Reagan more than I equate her with her acting career. And though Nancy Davis hardly built such a substantial Hollywood career, I am quick to remember her because she was, after all, the First Lady.

However, with viewings of the Yearling and especially Johnny Belinda, I hoped to remedy this by recalibrating my brain’s gut responses. It was a stunning success. I’ve never been more mesmerized with Jane Wyman, and the core of Johnny Belinda’s merit lies in how simple it is. She does so very much with so little and in a medium often hampered by excess, Johnny Belinda is, in its finest moments, a quietly moving examination of a human being.

Cape Breton can be easily placed. There’s a wharf and a cannery. Men work at sea bringing in the days catch, and there’s nothing glamorous about their existence. The work is hard and the people blue collar. It’s the wrong coast, but these are the kindred of Steinbeck and certainly, you cannot help but think of Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night with its seascape and gale of drama.

However, I happen to think Johnny Belinda weathers the drama with a more delicate touch. We must turn to the characters to understand how this really happens. Because the small-town setting is stocked up with all types and shades of people. An amiable doctor named Richardson (Lew Ayres) has recently set up practice on the island making housecalls aided by a pleasant bedside manner. His swooning young housekeeper (an oft-forgotten Jan Sterling) is smitten and wishes above anything to be noticed.

It’s true he’s both a generous and obliging fellow though he doesn’t go to church on Sundays. It’s one reason for the old ladies in town to still somehow doubt his sincerity. He certainly can’t be familiar with “Christian charity” as they are!

Aside from the run-of-the-mill gossips, there’s the slimy reprobate Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally). Presently we might label him rightly as a bastion of toxic masculinity. However, the bottom line is he’s a vain and destructive human being who is able to fly under the radar due to the town’s hypocrisy. In other words, he goes to church on Sundays and manages to be romantically linked to the aforementioned housekeeper Stella.

We must also mention the gruff but not unkind farmer Black MacDonald (Charles Bickford). In fact, over time, he starts looking better and better as his work ethic and old-fashioned decency begin to let slide his affection for his daughter (Wyman). Meanwhile, his sister is played by Agnes Moorehead, a criminally underrated actress, perhaps because people do not superficially tout her looks. And yet she is a remarkable performer bringing strength and an acerbic edge to her part.

Even with these people, the spokes of a story aren’t altogether obvious as the kindly doctor takes the dumb and mute young woman under his tutelage, perceiving her intelligence and the dormant curiosity inside of her.

Wyman models her transformation exquisitely, first, picking up signing, then learning basic gestures of communication. However, in a town like this, there are certain types of ignorant people. People who will only ever see her as a “dummy.” There is no beauty or intelligence to unlocked inside her countenance because they can only comprehend the physical.

One prime example is when some merrymakers have an impromptu shindig at MacDonald’s barn fater picking up their weekly order of flour. The good doctor stands by Belinda beaming, showing her a fiddler plucking away joyously on his strings. The discovery is manifested on her face as she touches the violin with its vibrating strings and her feet begin to patter modestly. Her legs move tentatively but sweetly as if unshackled for the first time.

Others see it too. First, Locky his eyes burning with lust and then his jealous girlfriend trying to win back his affection with a carnal kiss. These are the only things they know about passion and romance. Add alcohol to the mix and it’s a volatile cocktail.

The film’s most helplessly terrifying moment comes when the belligerent thug wanders off from the party and finds a peaceful Belinda. His eyes burn with malicious intent. She has only innocence which quickly turn to fear as he encroaches. The subsequent inference of images and cuts speak for themselves as do ensuing events…

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Recently I’ve been pushing back against the era’s tendency toward over-illumination when it comes to spelling information out. However, some of the greats, Hitchcock and Lang among them, were able to imbue sound films with a certain silent sensibility where passages rely on the primacy of image over sound.

I won’t put Jean Negulesco in the same group as these others, but nevertheless, his premise necessitates a certain amount of nuance in order to approach the subject matter. It’s a tact that I very much appreciate because the film ably takes on the restraint and the functionality of a silent film especially when considering the subject of Belinda.

Consider, for example, a near-wordless entrance into the church with the stunned congregation looking on as a lovely Belinda enters in her Sunday best. In the same sequence, Dr. Richardson watches Belinda’s face swell with apprehension upon seeing McCormick for the first time. The power comes in this unspoken revelation.

The story must progress, and it evolves into a modern play on The Scarlet Letter with pernicious scandal digging in. You must remember this is the same small town with ears and eyes on every street corner. News travels fast that Belinda has a child and everyone has their preconceived notions on who the father is. They are intent on taking matters into their own hands. I need not expound upon this anymore.

More useful still are the impressions of the following scenes. In a strikingly poignant interlude, Belinda signs “The Lord’s Prayer” as the solemn bystanders join her in grieving the dead. We are reminded this is a different era imprinted with Christianity and a God who was a present comfort in the face of adversity.

Her moments taking care of her baby are also so tender and one is reminded of the universal experience of parenthood. Belinda might not be able to speak or hear but she feels and becomes both guardian and protectorate of that little bundle of joy no matter the cost.

An ensuing trial has her in the defendant’s seat and these scenes are generally conventional. They crop up in any amount of noir, melodrama, screwball comedy, whatever. It’s the precise circumstances that make it an engaging end. Because court is all about testimony and defense. What if someone is barely able to defend themselves?

They require others to intercede on their behalf. The final safety valve providing the audience a release is overblown and a foregone conclusion, but up to this point, what a joy it is to watch events unfold moment after moment.

This is a fine turn by late-period Lew Ayres although he is nothing without the quiet dignity and sprightly inquisitiveness of Jane Wyman. Johnny Belinda is a stunning reminder truth need not only come in the powerful wind or the quiet whisper. It can come in silence as well.

4/5 Stars