Alias Nick Beal (1949): Ray Milland’s a Devil

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This is my entry in the CMBA Politics on Film Blogathon.

Alias Nick Beal handily flips the paradigm of cinematic angels in vogue with Hollywood, specifically during the 1940s. You could make a whole subgenre out of them. As its name suggests, the lynchpin character of the whole movie is Nick, though this is admittedly only a pseudonym. Across time and space, he’s come in many forms, under many names, including the serpent, Lucifer, or the Devil.

Ray Milland portrays him in bodily form ,providing a deliciously evil turn in fine threads. He’s not quite the “blonde Satan” out of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade literature, but he’s almost there, about as close as you might possibly come in the flesh. With such a devious figure pulling the strings, Alias Nick Beal becomes noir mixed with myth and allusion in a rather unusual manner. It is the first of its kind: a Faustian noir.

The story itself opens in more conventional territory. There’s an earnest, hard-working district attorney named Foster (Thomas Mitchell) who is looking to clean up local corruption, manifested as always by cigar-chomping Fred Clark with his host of slot machines and bookies just looking to rake in the dough.

Try as he might, he’s never been able to deal the definitive blow to the town’s graft. Regardless, he’s an upstanding man of principle with a devoted wife (Geraldine Wall) of many years and a solid base of friends, including local minister Reverend Garfield (George Macready). Of course, even someone like him falls to temptations; they seem innocent at first even honorable. The trajectory of his entire political career starts to change for the better, although his personal relationships are poisoned beyond repair. More on that later.

For now, he has an inauspicious meeting at the local watering hole, the dubious China Coast Cafe. It’s the kind of joint that can only exist in the foggy back lots of some Hollywood studio (in this case Paramount Pictures).

It’s the cheap, low-lit atmospherics of such an obviously stylistic or phony facade that make Alias Nick Beal feel like low-grade entertainment. With noir, however, this often proves more of a blessing, and what’s more remarkable is how impressive the cast manages to be. The cafe also happens to be a fitting place to meet the devil’s incarnate.

No, Foster doesn’t go and sign the pact right then and there. His new acquaintance is far too cunning, far too diabolical to be so direct. But it comes soon enough as his new undue influence makes an insidious impact on the politician’s life. Isn’t it true that small habits compound as days, weeks, months, and years go by before you realize how much you’ve actually changed? Whether good or bad.

Simultaneous with his public ambitions, Foster’s reverend friend helps run a boys home not unlike similar storylines in Boy’s Town or Angels With Dirty Faces. It’s a conventional if generally uninteresting element. The one moment prodding the movie’s core conflict with a stick comes with the daily Bible reading.

Nick doesn’t want to be caught dead near the good book, but the minister opens it all the same as is his practice reading the following words to his charges:

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas and established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”

If they’re not obvious already, the passage is an implicit call for Foster — to make him take heed — a warning against his current trajectory. Nick knows if Foster heeds the words, all his tireless work in interference will be thwarted. However, he’s still got some tricks up his sleeve.

One of them is named Donna Allen (Audrey Totter), a dame he found out on a street corner by the same upstanding establishment he just happened to meet Foster at. Audrey Totter does her gloriously acerbic rendition for this strange character and plays it nice and tender as well. It’s a fluid performance for a peculiar role calling for a hooker to get promoted in status to that of a campaign manager and confidante.

Suddenly, the work of devils and angels don’t look altogether dissimilar. After all, he raises this woman of ill-repute out of the gutter, gets her an apartment, drapes her in mink coats and stoles. However, it’s the ulterior motives that are most revealing.

Because eventually Nick has worked his way up — greasing the wheels of Foster’s ego as it were — so they can start talking about the murky grays of politics. His line of arguments are deceptive to the point he has his victim finds himself conceding on the same points of moral bedrock as Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

They buy into the lie that this is the only way to get anything done. Maybe it is partially true. Who am I to say? Conveniently, in the other picture, Thomas Mitchell was the wisecracking journalist who could observe from a comfortable distance. In this one, he’s embroiled right in the middle of the mess.

With Nick Beal constantly needling him and all the conflicting forces and voices in his life swelling, it really is a tug-of-war for his soul. Everyone wants a piece of it. His wife, the reverend, Nick, even Donna. It’s the intent that colors their true character.

Thus, Alias Nick Beal is an impeccably noirish take on spiritual warfare — the necessity of “pinning the devil to the mat” — before he totally makes you into a self-serving, arrogant person. Given the context it’s already working within, Nick Beal is a creative riff on Faust, but it never feels like full-fledged noir since the moralism is laid on a bit thick.

Neither of these elements is altogether detrimental, but it does feel like the movie is diluted in all its efforts. It’s this curious amalgam of disparate points of interest and self-reflexive in its orchestration with Milland being allowed to be villain and impresario. Again, the pieces and the resulting performances are intriguing, but it feels too cut-and-dry in the scripting department.

There’s never the great intrigue of watching a movie where we imbibe the sense of drama, romance, laughter, or whatever else. It feels like a story is being spun for the sake of Nick Beal so we can see him pulling the strings in front of the camera. Meanwhile, other themes are either cast aside or never fully explored. They could have been the building blocks for another movie entirely.

All told, I’d put it a couple rungs under the likes of The Bishop’s Wife and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. And it’s not quite on par with director John Farrow’s The Big Clock or His Kind of Woman. Milland is enough to make it nearly worth it.

3/5 Stars

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Rejected Cornerstone

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Note: This post was originally written a few days after the Notre Dame fire on April 15th, 2019.

“All over France, in every city there stand cathedrals like this one, triumphant monuments of the past. They tower over the homes of our people like mighty guardians keeping alive the invincible faith of the Christian. Every arch, every column, every statue is a carved leaf out of our history.” Harry Davenport as King Louis XI

We often say rather facetiously “if only these walls could talk,” referring to those hallowed grounds imbued with a history of ages gone by, whether they reach near or far into the past. However, it’s necessary to acknowledge, with a place such as Notre Dame de Paris, such an aphorism rings true. It takes on resonant meaning the very week I write this.

Only a few days ago, this landmark of Paris (even preceding the Eiffel Tower) was stricken by a fire that ran rampant, even torching the iconic central spire, so it came crashing down. Given the context and what this structure stands for — even as implied by this film — it’s no small surprise the news grieved, not simply an entire nation, but the world-at-large.

It is part of the reason I desired to watch this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s lauded novel. It is a bit of a memorial, but also an act of solidarity. We need to remember these bastions of history because they carry so much worthwhile beauty within their walls.

As would have it, this version of the famed Parisian tale begins with the two pillars of authority within the film, rather like the towers of Notre Dame themselves, albeit one good and the other bad. The King (Harry Davenport) is an open-minded, bright-eyed, and benevolent ruler, who looks at advancements like the printing press with only mild amusement. He sees no harm in the people being able to spread ideas.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Frollo (Cedrick Hardwicke), is the local judge and arbiter over the judiciary system. To mollify the production codes, he was changed from a religious hypocrite to a far more secular villain as his behavior is unbecoming a man of the cloth. Disney’s version would rectify this minor faux pas and yet for the longest time, this tweak went all but unnoticed. The sentiments and moral dilemmas work out much the same. Likewise, there’s little doubting the weight of the other performances in this version.

Like A Tale of Two Cities or Les Mis, both adapted throughout 1930s Hollywood, the palpable world being constructed here is one of the most prominent assets of this period piece. I might be biased toward these literary adaptations of old. They certainly are not faithful distillations of their sources; they’re processed through the mechanism of Classic Hollywood, and yet they never cease to amaze me for the sheer amount of atmospheric world they are able to put forth on the screen.

Case and point is the initial street carnival hitting the audience full-on with a flurry of activity, gaiety, and sensory overload in every area. There’s no way to fill in all the background with computerized extras or scenery and so what you see is what you get, from a mass of cackling gypsies to a giant hog on a spit, to all sorts of medieval dunces, stilt walkers, and street performers milling about. It’s true such an arena would be impeccable for a fruit fight and of course, there is one.

Charles Laughton’s turn as Quasimoto is a highpoint in an illustrious career because he willfully commits to the character in all of his outward ugliness and ostracization, while still endowing him with the tenderness dwelling therein.

At times, it’s a near-silent performance, which makes it potentially more compelling — so much is left to posture and expressions — the nuances of behavior speak volumes on his behalf. Dialogue might turn into a crutch for other characters, but very rarely for him. His words — when used at all — are chosen carefully and, thus, there is a meaning behind them well worth considering.

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For the day and age, there is arguably no better lass to portray Esmerelda than Maureen O’Hara as youthful, fiery, and supernally beautiful as she is in this very moment. Whether she’s a convincing gypsy or not, it’s easy enough to believe she draws the admiring eye of nearly every mortal man.

So many eligible (and not-so-eligible) men vie for the affections of the striking, thoughtful, free-spirit. She is smitten with the handsome Captain of the Guards: Phoebus (Alan Marshal), who returns her favor. Another is the scorned poet Pierre Gringoire played by an initially unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien, due to the utter youthfulness of his features. Quasimoto harbors his own crush on the pretty maiden, though his is not the only unrequited love.

Frollo, as painted here, is no Disney villain — harsh and corrupt he may be — but there is something buried there to feel sorry for, even as his soul is twisted up inside. Tormented by an infatuation he cannot seem to quell. Ultimately, what remains is his vindictive polemic against gypsies and anyone he deems to be pernicious to his self-prescribed social order.

Here the narratives channels this undercurrent of Aryan prejudice sweeping the European landscape, this heavy strain of anti-Semitism that, ironically, brought a plethora of talent to Hollywood. The parallels are too overt not to comment upon. It goes to show how the social climate of the time cannot be completely stripped away from material which, while timeless, also has striking ties to the contemporary moment.

On a lighter note, what better vagabond to be King of the Hall of Miracles than the one and only Thomas Mitchell. His year would yield performances in a staggering five movies — all of them classics — including Gone with The Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, and this film. What’s more astounding is the consideration that this might be the weakest of all the pictures he was in! One can never discount the inevitable shadings of color he adds to any ensemble.

The Christ metaphors with Quasimoto are also blatantly clear. He is crowned the King of the people on the first day only to be ridiculed and mocked in the streets the next. He is the scapegoat, taking on all the people’s ills, grievances, and malevolence upon his head. Even the local leaders, as reflected by Frollo, look down on him in disdain and utter malice. So Quasimoto’s station in life is that of a total outcast, despised by everyone.

There is only one person who has pity on him and it is, of course, Esmerelda. She showed it before, marrying the poet to save him from hanging, and this is her second act of goodness. The wheels of justice can be harsh as she is sentenced to death, based on the bleatings of a Goat named Aristotle. The logic used is not unlike Witches sinking during the Salem trials. Her innocence falls on deaf ears, not as a result of clanging bells, but instead, even harder hearts.

There is a certain gravitas with the young vision of beauty bowed on the steps of the cathedral, awaiting her execution. The lingering essence is very much the same to Dreyer’s seminal masterwork Joan of Arc. A figure of such common virtue subjected to such ignominy on such a grand scale.

Again, the Christ-like metaphors cannot be dismissed as yet another martyr is unfairly condemned for practicing witchcraft. It takes one outcast rescuing another and seeking sanctuary in the house of God. While it might seem an antiquated tradition, there is something impactful about the walls of Notre Dame being a haven to all who call upon them.

The final storming of the cathedral feels more like disastrous miscommunication than a fully-fledged battle for the heart and soul of the city. Regardless, the last note is a resounding one. Esmeralda ends up with her man. Quasimoto, in a realistic development, despite being a hero, is forced to carry on his life of solitude.

Though he might not be the most prominent feature of Notre Dame de Paris, it becomes increasingly apparent he is like the cornerstone  — a vital component — mostly rejected and forgotten by the world around him. He did everything out of deep, abiding love, requited or not. Much the same might be said of Laughton’s performance. The whole story falls apart without him, and he handles each scene with his usual aplomb and theatrical bearing.

4/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Stagecoach (1939)

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While the western hardly began with Stagecoach, one could go out on a very slight limb and say it became a more fully realized version of itself in the hands of John Ford; it all but grew in stature as a genre. This progression cropped out of the prevailing assumption of the day and age that the western was low-grade rubbish meant for no-name actors and meager productions. But Ford proved they could be ripe with so many more possibilities because he had greater ambitions from the outset.

We have John Wayne making a second go of stardom as the Ringo Kid, in what would prove a career bolstering performance, after some 70 films he’d already played in. He, of course, reemerged on the screen in a bold tracking shot and subsequent closeup that has all but impressed itself upon anyone who has ever witnessed the film. In this moment, Ford all but thrusts Wayne into the limelight as his star, for better or for worse, and Duke obliges thereafter.

Ford’s first excursion to Monument Valley proved to be love at first sight as he became so enraptured with the location — and why not — he would film there countless times in the future. It became synonymous with his finest work; he used it as the perfectly mapped canvass on which to express himself. One could argue that no director ever had a better setting,  more synonymous with his vision and sensibilities.

Forget the landscape and situation for a moment. Stagecoach might be one of the premier chamber pieces ever captured. Semantics aside, the picture relies heavily on a cast of characters filled out by archetypes and yet each actor involved is able to lend such credence to each individual role. We readily accept them as a whole ensemble almost seamlessly.

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Apaches stirred up by Geronimo are an excuse for the impending threat looming over the title vehicle. Because it’s true that the stage must make its journey at some point, though the slightly chubby, whiny-voiced driver, Buck (Andy Devine), is hesitant about such a perilous road ahead. Riding shotgun for him is the no-nonsense Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) who vetoes the other man’s blubbering.

However, if they were to go it alone with only some payload or mail delivery, Stagecoach would be robbed of some of its richness. Two of the first travelers to join them are both casualties of social prejudice and the snooty, self-righteous prigs of the Law and Order League. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is an ostracized woman of the street and then the scorned Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is constantly living in a state of drunkenness.

Contrasting with the other woman is a lady of high repute, Ms. Mallory (Louise Platt), who is pregnant and yet resolves to meet her husband at his cavalry outpost. Her presence coaxes a gentleman gambler (John Carradine) to come aboard as he holds some innate sense of duty in protecting someone of her breeding.

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We also have the impeccably named Donald Meek as Mr. Peaccock who is constantly having his name mispronounced while his samples of whiskey are continually finding their way into the Doc’s possession. He’s a calming force just as the entitled banker, Mr. Gatewood, protests just about everything.

If the types sound familiar it’s because you can draw a line between many of them and their progeny for years to come. But the beauty of the character dynamics is the evolution they undergo. We are not simply blessed by starkly different individuals brushing up against each other in close confines. In other words, of crucial importance is how they act toward one another and ultimately how they change over the course of this joint heroes journey.

Claire Trevor, fittingly, later remembered Ford’s chiding of Wayne, “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Watch the film and you understand his direction in actual practice. So much is said in unspoken looks and behaviors. Trevor seems especially adept in speaking with her eyes because everything she wants to say and can’t say comes through this very avenue. And whether John Ford would agree or not, The Duke’s eyes are equally telling.

Interiors are exquisitely framed and lit in such a way allowing the actors to be so expressive while space and staging are used to accentuate those same aspects. Take for example one sequence around a dinner table where two camps find themselves moving to opposite corners. You have the outcasts and the purportedly upstanding citizens opposite one another. Not a word is spoken but it is all played out through mere body language and positioning.

However, Whether the film completely realizes it or not there are other societal casualties, namely the Mexicans shown on the screen as well as the Native Americans themselves. Chris (prolific Mexican-American actor Chris Pin-Martin) at least has a voice but not much else. Meanwhile, it does feel as if the Indians are used essentially for a plotting device. There is no depth present in this regard.

However, the pursuit undertaken by the Apaches is filmed marvelously by Ford. In one particularly memorable long take, the stage lumbers into the distance followed by first four and then an entire wave of riders on horseback. It fluidly suggests immense menace and pace which never quite leaves the sequence.

They are reinforced by a couple shots that feel as if the stagecoach and the horses after it are all but trampling the camera. The sense of volatility is accentuated by the legendary stunt work of Yakima Canutt performing death-defying feats on horseback and hanging from the stagecoach. In the era before readily available CGI, it’s the kind of movie magic still capable of stopping a modern viewer cold.

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But the picture does not end there. The city offers other issues that must be resolved. Namely, Ringo’s final showdown with the men who killed his father and kid brother. Also, he must find out what Dallas really is or at least what she is perceived to be.

However, instead of milking the reveals for pure melodramatics, Ford does one better, creating an atmosphere of pure beauty. But within that same framework is a cringe-inducing tension. Pulling his camera away from moments to dwell on reactions as much as actions and movements as much as dialogue. Some of his actors are even given close-ups all the better for studying every expression of their faces.

Because we can write up all that happens in Stagecoach in a matter of sentences. That’s not the engrossing or remarkable part of the picture at all. It’s precisely the way Ford has cast it as only he could. It’s exciting and moving and genuinely light-hearted but it chooses when a certain mood is called for, succeeding in evoking each at the given time like the most visceral vessels of entertainment manage to do.

Thankfully we had many more outings between Ford and Wayne. The director might have given his friend hell on the set but there’s no debating the fact they crafted some of the most iconic westerns together. The collaboration was imperative. Stagecoach rides on the laurels of many people, not least among them Pappy and Duke.

5/5 Stars

The Black Swan (1942)

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If you make your way to this swashbuckler you’ll find a movie set in The Spanish Main as England has just brokered a peace treaty with their imperialistic competitors. As you probably already surmised, you might as well leave your textbooks on maritime history at home because there’s no need to reference them here. Actually, I stand corrected. Captain Henry Morgan was a real person. Everything else is an excuse for pillaging gold and adventure on the high seas.

As someone educated on Tintin serials (ie. The Secret of the Unicorn) and “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything,” enjoying such a picture from perennial Hollywood journeyman Henry King is hardly a chore taken for what it is.

In the opening moments, we have coastal marauders who overrun a city to loot it and run off with pretty girls. They’ve even stretched a conceited official on the wrack for good measure. Except a counterattack by the local militia ensues and soon we learn from the reformed pirate, Henry Morgan himself (Laird Cregar), things have changed.

He has been made Magistrate of Jamaica in return for his loyalty and he calls his faithful scallywags to join him in a bit of respectability on the right side of the law. His longtime right-hand man, Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), agrees to it, though some of the others led by treacherous Billy Leech (George Sanders) look to try their luck on the seas like always.

The pictures finest asset is a cast as thick as thieves. A particularly cheeky Tyrone Power is at the top his of game, looking like he’s having a swell time of it, being a bit of a dashing scoundrel right up there with Errol Flynn. Cregar is memorable yet again as the formidable blaggard with many a plume. He and “Jamie Boy” share a particularly humorous reunion when Power dumps a purportedly unconscious Maureen O’Hara like a sack of potatoes to give his old buddy, Captain Morgan, a warm welcome.

Meanwhile, George Sanders is almost unrecognizable as a mangy red beard. It’s one of those makeover jobs where you have to do a double take to try and differentiate that familiar voice hiding behind a very unfamiliar visage.

Following up his villainous turn opposite Power in Son of Fury (1942), Sanders is back and even better. Though not seemingly the athletic type or a swordsman for that matter, he lends the right amount of licentiousness and folly to his turn as Captain Leech.

Thomas Mitchell, a man who could play a character part in his sleep, colors in his role as the quintessential boisterous, bandanna-wearing sea hand who’s right by Jamie’s side whenever he’s needed. There’s even Anthony Quinn with an eye patch, though woefully underused and Maureen O’Hara, the most desirable “wench” there ever was on the Caribbean, as our only leading lady.

It must be acknowledged however the script all but wastes her talents as she hardly fits the archetype of your normative “damsel in distress” role, though her beauty in Technicolor is admittedly unsurpassed. While hampered by an unimaginative part, she still manages a few fiery exchanges with Power after his character kidnaps her as his bride-to-be and they subsequently build some kind of rapport out of the sparks in a mere scene or two.

The picture follows Jamie Boy as he scours the ocean for his old shipmate, Billy Leech, who is up to his old plundering ways, terrorizing the seas and ruining the tranquility of the two world powers. Though reformed, Morgan is under fire from a council that finds his position suspect as he was once in cahoots with the wanton criminal. The authorities at hand call for impeachment even as one among their ranks sows discord.

What else is expected except a final shootout on the seas complete with a barrage of cannons? Jamie is held prisoner by the man he was sworn to apprehend while other forces look to hang him for perceived insubordination. But Tyrone Power is more than up to the task of swinging through the yardarms to victory and getting the girl for good measure.

To this end, The Black Swan is wartime swashbuckling escapism, both fanciful and fairly lean in running time and resources. These, of course, were in part an effort toward wartime conservation but the reduced length does not keep it from being fulfilling. Perhaps it’s for the best they don’t make pictures like this anymore but, for its day, it’s an ebullient rollick worthy of the pirates within its frames. Maybe not its lady…

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_cropThe opening credits roll and recognition comes with each name that pops on the screen. Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Porter Hall, Charles Lane, William Demarest, Jack Carson, and of course, Frank Capra himself.

We are met with the ubiquitous visage of Charles Lane calling in a big scoop on the telephone. A senator has died suddenly. The likes of Porter Hall and H.B. Warner fill the Senate Chamber presided over by a wryly comic VP, Harry Carey. Corruption is personified by the flabby pair of Edward Arnold and Eugene Palette while Claude Rains embodies the tortured political journeyman. The eminent members of the press include not only Lane but the often swacked Thomas Mitchell and a particularly cheeky Jack Carson.

To some people, these are just names much like any other but to others of us, linked together and placed in one film, these figures elicit immense significance and simultaneously help to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most satisfying creations of Hollywood’s Golden Age from arguably “The Greatest Year in Cinematic History.”  The acting from the biggest to the smallest role is a sheer joy to observe as is Capra’s candid approach to the material.

As someone with a deep affection for film’s continued impact, it gives me great pleasure that stories such as Mr. Smith exist on the silver screen if only for the simple fact that they continually renew my belief in humanity, whatever that means. Because it’s an admittedly broad, sweeping statement to make but then again that’s what Frank Capra was always phenomenally skilled at doing. He could take feelings, emotions, beliefs, and ideals synthesizing them into the perfect cultural concoctions commonly known as moving pictures.

But his pictures always maintained an unfaltering optimism notably in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations. He never disregarded the corruption dwelling in his stories–it was always there–in this case personified by the stifling political machine of Jim Taylor gorging itself off the lives of the weak and stupid.

The key is that his narratives always rise above the graft and corruption. They latch onto the common everyday decency, looking out for the other guy, and in some small way uphold the great commandment to love thy neighbor.

Politics have never been my forte. Like many others, I’m easily disillusioned by “politics” as this becomes a dirty word full of arrogance, partisanship, and scandal among other issues. It seems like the founding principles that laid the groundwork for this entire democracy often get buried under pomp & circumstance or even worse personal ambitions.

Although this film was shot over 75 years ago everyone who’s been around the block lives as if that’s the case then too and so they’re not all that different from today at least where it matters. Cynicism is a hard thing to crack when it runs through the fabric of society from the politicians, to the newspapers, all the way down to the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. Still, the genuine qualities of a man like Jefferson Smith can act as a bit of an antidote. He as a character himself might be a bit of an ideal, yes, but I’d like to have enough faith to believe that people with a little bit of Jefferson Smith might still live today.

Common, everyday people who nevertheless are capable of extraordinary things like standing up for what’s right when they know that no one else will or when they know all that waits for them at the end of the tunnel is disgrace. But the promise of what is beyond the tunnel is enough. That is true integrity to be able to do that and those are the causes worth cheering for when David must fight Goliath and still he somehow manages to overcome. That’s the chord Mr. Smith strikes with me. thanks in part to Capra’s vision but also Stewart’s impassioned embodiment of those same ideals.  He has a knack for compelling performances to be sure.

Time and time again James Stewart pulls me in. His career is one of the most iconic in any decade, any era no questions asked. There are so many extraordinary films within that context perhaps many that are technically or artistically superior to Mr. Smith by some  estimations, but he was never more candid or disarming than those final moments in the senate chambers as he fights for his life — clinging to the ideals that he’s been such a stalwart proponent for even as his naivete has been mercilessly stripped away from him.

In the opening moments, his eyes carried that glow of honest to goodness optimism, his posture gangly and unsure represented all that is genuine in man. Now watching those same ideals and heroes come back to perniciously attack him, he presides with almost reckless abandon. Is he out of his mind? At times, it seems so, but as he wearies, his hair becomes more disheveled, and his vocal chords have only a few rasps left he still fights the good fight. There’s an earnest zeal to him that’s positively palpable.

As our stand-in, Saunders (Jean Arthur) first writes him off as a first class phony or at the very least a political stooge ready to do another man’s bidding but she does not know Jefferson Smith though she does grow to love him. And Arthur’s performance truly is a masterful one because without her Smith would hardly be the same figure. She brings out his naivete by sheer juxtaposition but she also puts the fight back into him because he brought a change over her that in turn rallies him to keep on pushing. They’ve got a bit of a mutually symbiotic relationship going on in the best way possible. You might call it love.

Capra repeatedly underlines Smith’s honesty and genuine nature not only through numerous rather simplistic montages of Capitol Hill and the surrounding national monuments but in the very way his character carries himself around others. He never assumes a position of superiority. He’s always humble. He sees the inherent need to raise up young people well so that they might progress to become the leaders of tomorrow with a great deal to offer our world. He fumbles with his hat in the presence of pretty girls and holds his idols in the highest esteem. It’s all there on Stewart’s face and in his actions. We too comprehend the solemnity and the gravity that he senses in the office of the Senate.

While this was not Jimmy Stewart’s debut and it was only at the beginning of a shining career as has already been noted, it was in these moments that the cinematic world fell in love with him. He can’t be licked and for good reason. He was never one to give up on lost causes just like his father before him.

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. ~ James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

5/5 Stars

Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

TheKeysoftheKingdomvideocover.jpg“Heathens are not always low just as Christians are not always high.” – Gregory Peck as Father Chilsum

Tales of humble priests are more fit for the likes of a Bresson or Rossellini, but Hollywood proves it too can offer up a film with resonance along similar lines. It’s a more melodramatic tale, a  historical and religious epic of sorts, carved out of the studio era mold, but its facets are auspicious and abundant. The script comes from veterans Nunnally Johnson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

It’s also hard to believe that it was this role as Father Chilsum that truly galvanized Gregory Peck’s career early on. Because if you look at him, he’s an imposing figure, kind-faced and calm. Still, there’s an unwritten maturity that seems to dwell beyond those eyes of his like he’s been doing this for a long, long time. It makes his playing an old man not all that unbelievable, in spite of any amount of makeup.

Keys of the Kingdom is also blessed by the studio system with the likes of Thomas Mitchell, Edmund Gwen, Vincent Price and a surprisingly adequate array of Asian performers including Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, and Benson Fong in an especially notable turn as the Father’s faithful right-hand man Joseph.

Despite having a loving family, Francis came from humble roots and tough beginnings illustrated by the long-held divide between Catholics and Protestants. Even as he resolved to join the clergy, his heart struggles with love and assignments that feel unfulfilling to his heart.

That is until he asks to be assigned as a missionary in a province of China. In the ensuing decades, he works to leave his mark of goodwill on a community, and he’s an upright man not looking for so-called “Rice Christians,” believing such bartering is a forgery for God. As his track record reflects, he’s a rather unorthodox as far as priests go, but he makes up for it with sincerity. His best friend is an atheist, a doctor from back home, and he’s not just concerned about the spiritual well-being his flock but their physical health too–all too soon becoming a trusted healer of the town, despite having little to no official medical training.

And although his gains are humble, he garners the respect of most everyone he meets. His fellow helper Joseph, the initially curt Reverend Mother (Rose Stradner) and even a republic soldier Major Shen (Richard Loo), who is amazed by the religious man’s resolve. True, his congregation is hardly a boon of religious conversions, but he begins an orphanage, taking in discarded children and nurturing them on the mission grounds. Many years later the Father Chilsum is to be sent back home for the sake of his health. It’s a bittersweet goodbye to this place he called home for so many years.

However, there’s a peaceful contentment to his character that Peck reflects so seamlessly. This was a man who came here to this foreign land with a vision that went beyond conversion rates. First and foremost, he cared about loving people well, and everything else was added to him.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: High Noon (1952)

highnoon1Drums softly beating. A voice mournfully bellowing,”Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin‘.” It can only mean one thing, the beginning of High Noon, a western that has grown near and dear to my heart in the recent years. And yet how can a western of under 90 minutes mesmerize and cause goose bumps to form time after time? That opening ballad sung so wonderfully and folksy by Tex Ritter is one great reason. It’s a mournful dirge of a song which nevertheless draws us into this film, and personally, I cannot help but belt out a few lines now and then (I’m unashamed to say I know the whole song). After all, it’s this song that reflects the story of our main character Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and reiterations of the tune can be heard throughout for the following hour as we all wait for the noon train.

The song makes it clear that Ben Miller is coming after Kane for sending him to prison. He’s got revenge on the mind and three of his buddies, including his brother, are waiting for his arrival, along with everybody else in town. Meanwhile, the Marshall is about to hang up his badge as it were, because he’s gotten hitched to a pretty young quaker (the estimable Grace Kelly), and they look to settle down with a store in some sleepy town. He’s well-deserving of it after all he’s done and the town stands behind him.

But the news of Miller’s return is no way to start the honeymoon. Still the couple sets off, but Kane turns around realizing he cannot run (I do not know what fate awaits me. I only know I must be brave. For I must face a man who hates me, Or lie a coward, a craven coward; Or lie a coward in my grave).

Thihighnoon4s is the backdrop that he’s trying to scrounge up a posse with. Others getting out of town, some telling him he should get out of town too, and a general commotion about what they should do about the whole mess. There are numerous cross sections and enclaves all with different motives and most importantly excuses. They all turn down a chance to help Kane for one reason or another (even his closest friends). It seems so easy to pass judgment, but then again what would we do in such a situation? In fact, it brings to mind the Hollywood Blacklist which this story was supposed to be an allegory for. This is not just some fictionalized parable, it was mirroring real life to some extent.

What really resonates about this film is the resolve of one man, because when it comes down to it, Kane did not need to stay, he did not need to do what he did, but he stood by his guns, literally, when no one else would stand with him. It’s easy to conform, easy to go with the crowd. It takes real courage to walk out on your own — although the Marshall did have a little help. So whether or not John Wayne thought this film was wholly “Un-American” or not, I think I would have to disagree with him on this one. Maybe what Kane has is reluctant courage, and I could see how the Duke would be disgusted by such a “spineless” individual. But for me, he’s all the more relatable played so aptly by Gary Cooper.

highnoon7It continues to amaze me that a film of this length can have so many wonderful characters who leave an indelible mark on the story. Certainly, you have the hero and the villains, but then we have character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, Harry Morgan, and Lon Chaney Jr. playing some of Kane’s buddies. There’s the gang at the bar and the hotel clerk, who are no friends of the Marshall. There’s his former flame Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) and his hot-headed deputy (Beau Bridges). The rest are filled out by men, woman, children, town drunks, and churchgoers. Zinnemann does a wonderful thing aside from just using the clock as a plot device and tension builder. He also calls back all these many characters as the noon train comes in with smoke billowing black. The audience and all these people know what that shrill whistle means. Things are going down, and Kane is going to face it all alone.

highnoon2The isolation is so wonderfully conveyed by an aerial shot where the camera moves up to show the stoic Marshall standing in the middle of a ghost town. No people around and no one showing their faces. Then of course, when it’s all over, the floodgates open and all the folks rush into the center of town. Fittingly,  Kane drops his tin star in the dirt in disgust as the refrains of Tex Ritter’s ballad continue.

Put High Noon up against other films and it could be criticized as nothing more than a western, but perhaps that’s why I like it. I cannot help but gravitate towards it. In some ways, it reminds me of growing up and it allows me to forget about any sort of deeper meaning for an instant so I can be fully enraptured with this story, this song, and these characters. It’s a worthy incarnation of the mythic west, that also leaves a little space for some humanity.

People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don’t care. They just don’t care.” – Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.)

5/5 Stars

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Make-way-for-tomorrow-1937It seems like Leo McCarey and this film for that matter often get lost in the shuffle. In his day he was a highly successful and well thought of director of such classics as The Awful Truth and Going My Way. However, his moving drama Make Way For Tomorrow is now often overshadowed by a similar film that used it as inspiration, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).

I will not pass judgment on which film I like more. In fact, to even begin to make a decision I would have to go back to both. However, this film opens by restating the 5th commandment. Honor thy father and thy mother. After all, this film is certainly about the gap between generations, parents with children, grandparents with grandchildren, but at its core is this main concern. Honor thy father and thy mother.

The film opens in the home of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi). 4 of their 5 grown children are gathered together on the request of their parents who have something to tell them. Because their father has not been able to work, the bank is taking their house and so they will be displaced. Thus, the story is set up as the kids worry about what to do, because no one feels capable of taking both parents. Finally, it is decided that eldest son George (Thomas Mitchell) will take Mother, and one of the sisters will take father.

It is difficult for everyone. The old folks are split up for one of the first times in their 50 years of marriage. Meanwhile, grandma disrupts bridge lessons, makes life more of a nuisance on George’s daughter, and forces the maid to take on more hours. It does not make anyone angry at first, but it begins rubbing and chafing. Creating bitterness and annoyance which is arguably worse. Things reach the breaking point when George’s peeved wife finds out that her daughter is rendezvousing with men, and she is not happy at all when grandma confesses to knowing about it. She loses her temper and grandma apologizes. Seeing a letter from a retirement home she quietly decides it would be better for all if she simply moves there.

Her husband does not fare much better, and the harsh New York weather is taking a toll on his health. Furthermore, his daughter is obviously getting tired of him as her patience continues to wear thin. Mr. Cooper does make a friend in a kindly old shop owner (Maurice Moscovitch), but he soon is turned off as well. Finally, his daughter decides to send their father out of California. She says it’s for his health, but the real reason is she wants him off their hands so her other sister can deal with him.

With this new turn of events, Barkley and Lucy have one last meeting set up so they can spend time together before he is sent off to California. This is the most touching part of the entire film because underlying this oasis is the doubt that they might not see each other again. In the wake of that proposition, they have sort of a second honeymoon. They ditch the kids and have a magical evening just the two of them, reliving their youth and remembering the olden days. The miracle of this sequence is that everyone seems to finally understand them, appreciate them, and really honor them. They are offered a ride in an automobile and are met by the hotel manager who offers them drinks and listens to their wonderful stories of times past. Even the conductor plays a slow waltz just for the two of them. It’s a beautiful extended moment that is made especially moving in contrast to the earlier scenes. These are two people who, despite their advanced years, are still very much in love. It speaks to the importance that marriage holds in the life of some people. In certain circumstances, it is not a shallow event, but a lifelong friendship that carries so much weight.

When the time comes, the two lovebirds say goodbye at the train station and we don’t know what happens to them. We can guess certainly, but McCarey leaves a sweeter taste in our mouths before finishing with a realistic ending. It’s beautiful, moving, and tearful, but not in an overdramatic sort of way. In the mundane, sorrowful way that seems to reflect the rhythms of real life. Beulah Bondi was featured in some many great films, but I’m convinced that this was her greatest performance as an individual. Victor Moore was a worthy companion for her as well. However, my favorite character was probably the shopkeeper Max, because he was such a personable man in a sea of grumbling and annoyance.

5/5 Stars

While the City Sleeps (1956)

whilethecity1While the City Sleeps has a brilliant cold open followed by a pounding title sequence, courtesy of Fritz Lang, that brings to mind a bit of Diabolique and Psycho. The rest of the film turns into a case to find the wanted lipstick murderer (based on a real killer), but that only holds part of our attention.

When newspaper magnate Mr. Kyne dies suddenly, his begrudging son Walter (Vincent Price) takes over intent on shaking up the status quo and putting his mark on the company. He soon turns three men against each other as they desperately fight for the new position of executive director. The first is veteran newspaper editor John Day Griffith (played by the always memorable character actor Thomas Mitchell). The second candidate is chief of the wire service Mark Loving (George Sanders) who is Griffith’s main competitor. Finally, in the third spot is Harry Kritzer who happens to have a secret ace in the hole. Each of them is tasked with finding out the real scoop about the serial killer, and it turns into a real tooth and claw ordeal. Within the glass cubicles, everything can be seen, but not everything is heard and that’s where the secrets get disclosed.

On the outside looking in, so to speak, is star TV reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrew), who agrees to help his friend Griffith by doing a little digging around about the murderer. He gets some tips from a cop friend Lt. Kaufmann (Howard Duff), and Mobley tries to smoke the killer out on air. However, it leads to the potential endangerment of his fiancée Nancy, who also happens to be Loving’s secretary. Loving has his love directed towards a female reporter named Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), who attempts to needle Mobley for info. At the same time, the killer is on the move once more, with Nancy being an obvious target. Mr. Kritzer’s own romantic entanglements get him in trouble because he is seeing Kyne’s beautiful but detached wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Mildred finds out about them and they have some talking to do. Mobley also has some making up to do with Nancy after she finds out Mildred came to see him. It’s a big mess.

whilethecity3Mobley juggles everything from his love life to the big scoop and they apprehend the killer, but things at Kyne’s don’t wind up exactly the way they expected. Mobley looks to move on from the paper with Nancy, but even he cannot get away that easily.

While the City Sleeps is an underrated tale from Lang that is positively stacked with big names. Its pacing can be deliberate at times, but it is just as much an indictment of journalism as it is a thriller. The office is a web of deception with so many interconnections between these work factions. Those you would normally expect to be scrupulous seem to give up their honor in the face of this new promotion. In a sense, Mobley seems to be outside of this fray and yet he cannot help but get involved in it. It doesn’t help that nothing turns out the way it’s supposed to. Everybody seems to gain something, but nobody really wins the game.

I must say it was great to see Dana Andrews in one of these leading roles again and although their roles were smaller, Ida Lupino and George Sanders still were a deliciously stuffy and corrupt pair. I was never really a fan of Vincent Price due to the roles he normally plays, but I was inclined to like Howard Duff (Lupino’s real-life husband) in his turn as the policemen. It goes without saying that Rhonda Fleming is positively beautiful, but she also cannot be trusted. I guess that applies to about every character in this film. It’s certainly a cynical world out there that Lang paints, where the killer might be caught, but corruption is never fully quelled.

4/5 Stars