Detective Story (1951)

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“Who are you, God? Didn’t you ever make a mistake?” – Cathy O’Donnell as Susan Carmichael

Counselor at Law (1933) was an early William Wyler film from the 1930s that shares some cursory similarities with this feature. Along those lines, Detective Story proves to be an exploration into the life of a cop much as the earlier film allowed us to look through the keyhole at the life of a lawyer (John Barrymore). Fundamentally they also both provide the same cross-section of society with Wyler navigating the space in such a way to tie the threads together while keeping things engaging.

Detective Story proves to be a stage play and a morality play in one fell swoop and that is decidedly both good and bad. It’s true that the crossroads of so many films and talents meet here and all share a room together.

There’s another fiery role for “Mr. Instensity” himself Kirk Douglas as Jim McLeod, a man who strives to rid the streets of criminals and put them where they belong: The electric chair. He wants to be judge, jury, and executioner if at all possible. His all-out war on crime can be traced back to his lousy father. Ever since those days, he’s vowed to be everything his old man never was — not tolerating any kind of infraction of the law. It’s a thoroughly intense portrayal though it jumps off the emotional deep end a few times too often.

It’s his supporting cast that steadies him and guides the film toward something more authentic and attainable. William Bendix was potentially slated for a reunion with Alan Ladd before Douglas ultimately took the role. However, he trades out his image as a heavy for a policeman with a decent dose of humanity.

Frank Faylen is the acting desk clerk who fields all the incoming calls that come his way. Meanwhile, Lee Grant is a skittish young purse snatcher who winds up at headquarters for her first offense. Cathy O’Donnell (wife of screenwriter Robert Wyler) plays her always immediately likable ingenue role as the young woman trying to bail out her childhood friend on a charge of theft.

There are a number of others including journeymen cops, journalists, and four-time losers and then there’s McLeod’s wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). I’m not sure what to evaluate Eleanor Parker on but in the recent months, I have gained an appreciation for the fact that, good or bad, she will fearlessly commit to a role and pour her all into it. She owns a very eclectic body of work as well but Detective Story sees her succumbing to histrionics much like her onscreen husband.

Because at its best Detective Story is a slice-of-life drama that gives us insight into humanity much as Counselor at Law (1933) did. But this picture is high on the dramatics and whether or not they are completely believable is up for contention.

It’s also a fairly frank picture at that — at least for its day — though it does point out the duplicity that’s so blatantly clear.  Here a taboo is utilized as the fodder for melodrama as something so despicable. Yet in the heart of Hollywood itself, there were undoubtedly many women who did similar covering up jobs to save their reputations.

The Hays Code could try and keep taboos under raps but in doing so they were ignoring an unfortunate reality. It is necessary to remove the shrouds and let these things live on in the light.

But far from seeing this film with our enlightened postmodern sensibilities and condemning it for making such a frank subject seem sullied and unseemly, I would contend that this picture leaves me melancholy. Not for the reasons you might expect either.

I feel sorry for women ostracized and labeled as “tramps” like Mary is. I’m ashamed that there is a standard that everything must be good and pure. There is no room for grace. It’s this hypocritical nature that’s blatantly obvious in McLeod with the bitter irony coming to fruition. He became the very person that he was striving never to become.

The depressing depths of the drama suffocate any chance of a laugh by the film’s latter half and so while I’m all for fatalistic even tragic denouements in the right context, this film is so utterly discouraging and it has nothing to do with desiring a happy ending. It’s more closely related to the lens in which the film seems to use. There’s no integrity left in humanity. A world where beating hearts of flesh have been transformed into hearts of stone. That’s a very dark world to try and reconcile with.

Worst yet it does try by heaping on more drama and last minutes heroics to right all the wrongs in a matter of seconds. So we lose on two accounts. The picture doesn’t have the guts enough to dig into its disconsolate inclinations and still for almost its entire runtime it’s focused on those precise conflicts making it supremely difficult to enjoy Detective Story as much as we could have.

3.5/5 Stars

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

Roman Holiday (1953): Escapism and Why That’s Okay Sometimes

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I’ve made a point of suggesting that the reason that I return to movies, again and again, is not because I go to them as an outlet of escapism but for the fact that films give us a little bit more insight into the lives we lead as human beings. In some ways, you could say I’ve even vehemently warned against films functioning in such a way if that’s their sole purpose. In other words, I’m not a proponent of turning on a movie and tuning out all the periphery. It sounds a little too much like Timothy Leary for my tastes.

And yet I return to Roman Holiday time after time.  This story that literally functions as a fairy tale, a vignette-filled journey that perfectly encapsulates a day on the town. And we get the pleasure of returning to it again and again along with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. I will qualify why this all still makes sense but first, a little background is in order.

From the first time I saw it, on a plane flight to England, I was enamored by the whole adventure and the individuals involved. Hepburn has remained unequivocally my favorite actress of all time period. Gregory Peck’s lasting screen presence keeps him among the greats as far as film stars go.

They make Roman Holiday work so impeccably, but the major key to director William Wyler’s success is the very fact that he took his film on location — something that was still a fairly new phenomenon. So instead of getting some artificial Italian world conjured up on the Paramount backlot, we got a far more realistic experience that is almost palpable with its authentic flourishes.

They’re the kind of iconic panoramas that you cannot try and fake without them turning out ridiculously corny. But Roman Holiday is the real deal and that shines through its crisp black and white imagery and successfully turns Rome into the third major player in this romance.

I think it’s telling that Roman Holiday is a fairy tale in itself. It’s the story of Princess Ann’s little bit of escapism. It’s a bit of bliss that she gets to share with someone very special. But does she wrap herself in it forever and never return to reality and the responsibilities she has? No, she goes back to them. And there’s a reluctance and as an audience, it’s certainly bittersweet.

But look at Ann in the end and we see that she has truly grown up in that short span of time. If she had not, she would have undoubtedly been content with a life living out her little fantasy and forgetting everything else around her of substance. That’s so easy to desire after all. However, in doing what she did, she not only grew immeasurably but, in the end, she has a magical experience to hold onto and remember fondly. The fact that it cannot last forever only makes it that much more special.

There’s nothing wrong with vacation — a day of rest and relaxation is necessary for all of us. It’s no coincidence that we have a weekend built into our daily rhythms. That’s why I enjoy returning to Roman Holiday every few years because it’s alright to have that guilty pleasure every once and a while. In fact, it’s not a guilty pleasure at all. You could make a case that stories like this are even necessary. But the important distinction to make is that escapism is fine — I’m not against it completely — but it needs to be in moderation.

We can return back to earth after the fun of the fairy tale and simultaneously our lives are made better and we have the good times to look back on. I will continue returning to Roman Holiday for years to come and without the least bit of hesitation. A little bit of fantasy can be a very good thing. I’ll try and remember that.

5/5 Stars

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): The Forgotten Counterpart to George Bailey’s Story

The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives_film_Inherent in a film with this title, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, is the assumption that it is a generally joyous tale full of family, life, liberty, and the general pursuit of happiness. With both films you would be partially correct with such an unsolicited presumption, except for all those things to be true, there must be a counterpoint to that.

Upon watching both these films on subsequent days, that became markedly evident. George Bailey (James Stewart), of course, must go through a perturbing alternate reality where he never existed, and the consequences are catastrophic to all those he knows and loves in his community. But such a paradigm shift or new perspective, does truly revitalize his entire existence. It’s as if he sees the whole world through an unfaltering lens of hopefulness thereafter.

Although it lacks the dark fantasy that engulfs the latter half of It’s a Wonderful Life, Best Years has its own heavy dose of foreboding, that while more realistic, is no less disconcerting. All the boys have returned from the theaters of Europe and the Pacific, including our three protagonists Fred (Dana Andrews), Homer (Harold Russell), and Al (Fredric March). Upon getting back to their old abode of Boone City, sons talk about nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and men at drug store counters warn of the imminent threat of “The Reds.” Some soldiers like Fred have trouble landing work. Others struggle with getting the necessary loans from banks like the one Al works at,  or they come back to far less glamorous lifestyles. Homer copes with being a double amputee and simultaneously closes himself off to all those who love him, including his longtime sweetheart Velma (Cathy O’Donnell). He must learn not so much how to love, but the equally difficult life skill of allowing others to love him.

Derry also struggles in a loveless marriage with his superficial wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), while also battling with PTSD symptoms like recurrent nightmares. Even the subtle reality that the only African-Americans in the film work behind soda fountain counters or in nightclub jazz bands has greater implications. Theirs is a relegated status, even in a country of liberty like America. Unlike the former film, we do not see any ghoulish human cemeteries, but we do see plane graveyards like ghost towns where metal is slowly rusting just waiting to get demolished and re-purposed. At this point, it is only a sobering reminder of all those who fought and died in the war years.

Many of these topics are only mentioned for a brief moment or we can only infer them from visual cues, but still, they lurk there under the surface or better yet, right in plain view. These real-life unsettling concerns are worse than It’s a Wonderful Life because they fall so close to home even today.

Wounded veterans are still coming home to a country that doesn’t know what to do with them, or a country that seems ungrateful for their service. Married folks still struggle through marriage and divorce. Single people still struggle with figuring out if they should get married and so on.

I think part of the reason I admire The Best Years of Our Lives so much, despite its nearly 3 hour running time, is its ability to captivate my attention rather like a day in the life of someone I would meet on the street. Although Virginia Mayo and Mryna Loy seem the most Hollywood, most everyone feels rather ordinary. Certainly, Dana Andrews is handsome and Teresa Wright, as well as Cathy O’Donnell, are wonderful as multidimensional girls-next-door, but I feel like I could potentially know people like them. And of course, Harold Russell was unusual since he wasn’t a trained actor. That casting choice pays off beautifully in moments such as the final wedding scenes where in a dyslexic moment he switches up his vows. But it works wonderfully as an authentic addition.

Although Gregg Toland worked on revolutionary fare like Citizen Kane, and William Wyler dabbled in all sorts of genres from westerns to period dramas, they have all the necessary sensibilities for a perfect presentation given the subject matter. The visuals are crisp and beautiful, but never flashy or overly conspicuous. The use of deep focus concerns itself with the overall composition of the frame -never attempting to focus our attention on any singular action.  It all becomes equally important. Meanwhile, Wyler directs with a sure hand that makes the actions flow organically and at the same time his ensemble is given the space and the time to grow and evolve before our very eyes.

It’s a timeless film for what it brings to the forefront and also because of what it evokes out of the audience members themselves. There is an underlying somberness to it at times, but most importantly it rings loudly with the high unequivocal notes of hope. In the post-war years, it was a pertinent film, and it still has something to offer even now. More people need to know about The Best Years of our Lives.

5/5 Stars

How to Steal a Million (1965)

220px-HowtostealamillionHonestly, the main attraction of this film is its leads in Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole as well as its director, the great William Wyler. Otherwise, this film is a fluffy, silly caper comedy with a touch of drama. It falls somewhere in between a rom-com and an art heist film where everyone in Paris speaks English. Go figure.

Nicole Bonnet’s (Hepburn) father Charles is a master forger of all types of art which he supplements his own vast collection with. Many of his pieces have been sold for a pretty penny at auction, and he has yet to be found out.

He loans out a family heirloom, Cellini’s Venus, to a local Parisian museum for a large exhibition. Meanwhile, Nicole catches someone in the act of burglary and it ends up being a handsome young gentleman (Peter O’Toole).  She is given a fright but ultimately is taken by the man who hardly seems the thieving type. She lets him go without calling the police even giving him a ride home.

Eventually, they cross paths again and she recruits him to help her steal Cellini’s Venus from the museum. She doesn’t tell him why, but she has her reasons and he willingly obliges. It’s all good fun after all.

The caper scenes are no more harrowing than the rest of the film. In fact, it gives the perfect setting for more comedy as the two burglars get locked in a broom closet together after closing time, while also repeatedly setting off the alarm. But it’s all part of the man’s plan, because, after all, he’s a professional. And their plan works. They get away with the statue and the following day the news spreads like wildfire.

In the end, Nicole finds out that Simon Dermott is actually a private eye specializing in art and criminology. He’s no thief and so this was his first heist too. She thinks she’s in for it now, but they’re too in love for that to matter. He explains himself to Mr. Bonnet who reluctantly agrees to end his forgery career on top.

The two lovebirds drive off madcap down the streets of Paris with a beautiful life ahead of them. There’s not much else to say except Hepburn and O’Toole are fun together, while the score of a young John Williams has a recognizable bounciness. Hugh Griffin seems slightly miscast to be Hepburn’s father, and the film is far from pulse-pounding, but these small facts do not negate from its overall charm.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Roman Holiday (1953)

Joe: Today’s gonna be a holiday.
Princess Ann: But you want to do a lot of silly things?
The answer is yes, yes we would!! That is the beauty of this film, which plays out as a lovely jaunt through Italy with two favorites in Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. With Hepburn being practically unknown at this point in time, it made her a wonderful choice to play Princess Ann. She was someone without any prior identifying roles making her young princess seem plausible. William Wyler took a chance on an unknown and he certainly hit the jackpot.
Gregory Peck on his part was always a strong leading man and an All-American type, perfect to play Joe Bradley. However, he also exuded gentlemanliness,s so despite the fact that the princess spent the night in his apartment we know nothing went on.  He had no ulterior motives bringing her to his apartment and even when he arranges to get an article out of her we know that is not who he is.
The film itself consists of wonderfully connected vignettes incorporating the Roman culture and landscape. Princess Ann leaves behind the hospitality of Joe in order to explore a bit before she goes back to her real life. In order to get that major scoop, he tails her and finally invites himself to tag along, so beginning the real fun. Princess Ann gets her beautiful locks cut by a friendly barber and buys some gelato from a street vendor.
 
Soon she takes her first puff of a cigarette, takes in the glory of the Coliseum, rides a Vespa through the hectic streets of Rome, and winds up in police headquarters with some explaining to do.They finish up their afternoon on a more thoughtful note at a wall of wishes originating during World War II.
 
One of the best moments occurs at the mouth of truth, a great stone statue, which you are supposed to stick your hand in before it eats it up. In a moment of sheer fear Princess Ann or Audrey Hepburn, I’m not quite sure who looks on in horror as a screaming Bradley removes his arm and his hand is gone. Up comes the hand from the coat sleeves and the jokes on her. It has absolutely no bearing on the plot but it makes us love Peck and Hepburn even more.
 

To finish off the evening the two companions and Irving (Eddie Albert) cause a ruckus at a dance aboard a barge before swimming away to safety. There Ann finds love and a soaking wet kiss to go with it. But it is at that moment when the laughs stop and the romance begins that everything becomes all too clear. This wonderful day cannot last forever. There is a moment, after one final embrace, when they have to say goodbye for good.

This is not one of those “love at first sight” stories, but it is a different sort of fairy tale where two individuals share an enchanting day together and fall in love. Every Cinderella story must end and so does this one (Anna: At midnight I’ll turn into a pumpkin and drive away in my glass slipper). They must eventually come back down to reality with Princess Ann fulfilling his duties and Joe moving on with his career.
 
Joe’s major newsflash is not a thing anymore. The whole day means too much to him and being the buddy he is, good ol’ Irving understands that. Speaking of Irving, he deserves some discussion. Eddie Albert’s character is spilled on, stepped on, knocked over, tripped, and through it all remains the perfect buddy for Gregory Peck.  Even his little car is a riot, not to mention his inconspicuous tiny cigarette camera and his sly efforts at photography in every type of circumstance. Irving shares a great deal of double talk with Joe which somehow gets past the unsuspecting princess. However, by the end of the film, the princess is also a cohort in their memorable adventure with commemorative photos included! 
 
When Joe Bradley walks out of the grand palace he leaves content knowing that he shared something special. No one else needs to know (aside from Irving) about the fairy tale they shared and that is the beauty of it all. It is just their little secret, their Roman Holiday. 
 
5/5 Stars

The Best Films of William Wyler

1. The Best Years of Our Lives
2. Ben Hur
3. Roman Holiday
4. The Little Foxes
5. The Heiress
6. Wuthering Heights
7. Mrs. Miniver
8. Dodsworth
9. Funny Girl
10. The Big Country
11. The Westerner
12. Friendly Persuasion
13. The Letter
14. Jezebel
15. How to Steal a Million
16. Counselor at Law
17. The Collector
18. Detective Story
19. The Desperate Hours
20. The Children’s Hour
21. These Three
22. The Good Fairy
23. Dead End