Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

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I have long sought out this picture and all I can say is all hail the conquering hero! It’s everything that could have been hoped for in a Preston Sturges wartime comedy. But in order for the laughs to come along with a great deal more, there must be a setup — a watering hole for our main players to familiarize themselves.

Sure enough, we are introduced to a fairly somber nightclub scene or maybe it’s simply the face of the one man the camera chooses to focus on, sitting dejectedly at the bar. There slumps Eddie Bracken, slightly pudgy and round-faced. By no means classically handsome but he and Preston Sturges had quite a thing going for a couple years.

He got sent home from the Marines for chronic hayfever. I’m extremely empathetic to his condition as I’m sure innumerable others are as well. Anyway, he’s too embarrassed to go home and it’s been a year now and he’s still not returned. However, he has nothing except the highest regard for the Marines as his father gave his life serving his country. In fact, it was the very day our boy was born.

He pays it forward to a group of Marines on leave with no dough, thanks to the gambling habits of one of their pack. The act of charity isn’t lost on them and they get acquainted. Soon they find out the name of their benefactor. It has the be the most patriotic names ever invented: Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (sans the Truesmith).

Soon they are regaled with his story and stunned by his encyclopedic knowledge of the exploits of the Marines out on the battlefields. Their leader Sergeant (William Demarest) even finds out they have a lot more in common as he knew the elder Truesmith — Winky Dinky for short — before he perished.

The only place for the film to go from here is back to Woodrow’s roots and so without his consent, his mother gets called up and it’s announced that he’s getting sent home. Woodrow’s against it from the beginning but his new pals say there’s nothing to it. He’ll wear a uniform for a day, give his mother a hug, and take off the uniform soon after, completely forgotten. Of course, as they ride the train into town, they have no idea what’s been stirred up in preparation.

A homecoming like you’ve never witnessed has been hurriedly assembled by the local committee chairman (the frantically hilarious Franklin Pangborn) and it’s the true essence of cacophony with unrehearsed dueling brass bands; the mayor and any number of folks milling about in expectant anticipation. The show is just beginning to warm up now.

What many will find astounding is just how perfectly Hail the Conquering Hero has been constructed by Sturges, at least in the way it skirts its topics with simultaneous delicacy and verve. Here is a film striking an impeccable course between that very same comedy and then admiration for the armed forces because no one can forget WWII was still blasting away across the world.

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Likewise, the church service far from belittling the faith is a lingering visual gag as we watch the dueling reactions of the two sides of the pews. First through the hymns and then a very sincere homily from the preacher culminating in yet another rousing display of goodwill. By now Woodrow has little hope to derail any of the fanfare with the erection of a commemorative statue christened “Like Father, Like Son” soon in the works. All his newfound Marine buddies are good for is stoking the fires and applauding the sentiment.

The next great sequence is cued by the music and Mother answers the door and mentions that the Judge (Jimmy Conlin) and some other civic leaders want to see Woodrow. Immediately his mind leaps to the worst possible scenario. The game must be up and all his Marine buddies inconspicuously grab household items in case of a tustle that might take place in the drawing room. Of course, their intentions are nothing of the sort. Far from it. The lead up makes the outcome into yet another outrageous reveal.

Just around this juncture, it becomes increasingly apparent that all the characters appear to move in packs and Sturges crams the frame gladly with bodies and faces and more appendages. Woodrow does his best to avoid the spotlight, flubbing his speech to the masses, and trying to downplay the bid for mayor thrust upon him only to be thwarted at every turn by a cheering crowd of well-wishers. One man even proclaims his was the greatest speech since William Jennings Bryan’s “Crown of Thorns!” Already we have the swellest giggle-fit inducer I’ve encountered in some time.

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I wracked my brain only to realize I’d never seen Ella Raines in a comedy before and for much of this picture she’s in the periphery, her comely smiling features on the screen with a whole host of others. But there are a few moments that, far from playing merely humorously, prove deeply moving as she is split between the man she is betrothed to marry and the one she truly loves.

The family she’s caught up in includes a quibbling father and son. The incumbent mayor (Raymond Walburn), who ponificates incessantly, attempts to dictate his speech in his latest bid for reelection only to get annoyed by his dim-witted boy (Bill Edwards) who nevertheless corrects his grammatical blunders. She’d do well to get out of there. Nevertheless, they are a bounty for humorous dialogue.

The stakes are set for a reversal of fortune with a number of parties having a chance to oust our hero. One man who’s buddy-buddy with the Mayor, the cool and collected Jake (Al Bridge) is mighty curious about Woodrow’s service record and he sends a wire to the Marine Base in San Diego. He gets the incriminating news shortly.

But ultimately it comes down to Woodrow himself and Sturges puts the perfect words in his mouth that Eddie Bracken then utters with an assured conviction. Riffing off the Biblical epithet he notes, “My cup runneth over with gall” and proceeds to pour out with veracious intent all the lies and masquerades he’s been too scared to admit to his own town. His guts are laid out right in front of him. Yes, his mother cries. The townspeople look on somberly and his Marine buddies can do nothing to dispel any of it. Even the words of the Mayor and his pal mean nothing now.

With such a showing you would think it was all over for Woodrow and he tells his mama that he’s going to leave again. He cannot stay. Not like this at least. But his girl comes back to him because she at least loves him unconditionally.

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At the train station the parlor games look like they might commence again but this time the whole town is involved, a lynching all but imminent. The Marines this time wrap up their belts inconspicuously to prepare for combat once more. Of course, the mob is there for a very different reason altogether.

The film has the foresight to see what so many of its contemporary war movies were, only made plainly obvious with the luxury hindsight: Light-hearted and good-intentioned yet still mawkish propaganda pieces. So Sturges took up his pen and tackled such hero worship and smalltime jingoism and yet settles on a resolution proving to be as venerating as it is satisfying.

Hail The Conquering Hero is a miracle assemblage of poignancy and humor; I don’t know how it comes away still intact and with my heartfelt laughter and deepest respect no less. It’s not an easy road to traverse by any means. Only a few have managed it. Chaplain in The Great Dictator (1940) distinctly comes to mind and Preston Sturges here.

4.5/5 Stars

The Burmese Harp (1956)

The_Burmese_Harp_Nikkatsu_1956_poster.jpgPut in juxtaposition with Kon Ichikawa’s later rumination on WWII, The Burmese Harp is a romanticized even simplistic account of the Japanese perspective of the war. However,  this is not to discount the mesmerizing nature of the story that is woven nor the overarching truth that seems to linger over its frames.

If anything, it humanizes the Japanese point of view and, rather remarkably, it does this so soon after the war’s conclusion. They were a nation deeply concerned with honor and the only way to get past such an egregious defeat was to frame it in such a way that empowered them for the future.

Because the men who came out of the war unscathed would be the shoulders on which to build a new democracy. You see that even in Ichikawa’s portrayal of the “enemy,” in this case, the English. There is no obvious ill-will. In fact, you could even consider it surprisingly laudatory. Because The Burmese Harp is not concerned with any types of residual politics or long-harbored injustices.

One could make the case it’s a far more universal and a far more moving portrait of the wartime landscape. The story, adapted from a Japanese children’s tale, plays out rather like a parable.

In the waning days of the Burma campaigns, a Japanese Captain named Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), with a background in music teaches his group of men chorale arrangements which they sing to maintain their morale while they march and during their idle hours. One of their company, Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), quickly picks it up and becomes especially skilled at playing the harp to accompany their songs.

One evening they find their position in a local village surrounded by British soldiers in the night. The tense scene is diffused by music in a mutual connection reminiscent of the Christmas cheer in Joyeux Noel.

They learn that Japan has officially surrendered and so they lay down their arms peaceably. Although fearful and demoralized by months of struggle, they resolve to weather it all together. But one of their members is called upon to try and get some of their comrades to stand down before the British blast them to smithereens.

Mizushima volunteers to be the one to undertake this initial task as a liaison to try and avoid the needless loss of more countrymen. It is not to be. Even as the war is already over, it’s this event that proves to be galvanizing in the private’s new position as a missionary of mercy.  After being rehabilitated by a monk, he takes on their dress and shaves his head compelled to give a decent burial to all his fallen comrades.

Moved by the memorial hymn sung over the dead Japanese soldiers at the British Hospital, he realizes what his final calling must be. It’s easy to wager that the film’s most poignant moments occur in conjunction with song. In many of the best interludes, we hear the voices ringing out amid nature whether it’s the shade of the forest or the cleared terrain of a military encampment you can sense the notes rising up into the heavens with the strains of angelic melodiousness.

The same songs lift the spirits of our characters, comforts their souls,  and gives them the resolve to push onward for the greater good.  It has to do with an unswerving belief that each individual life holds dignity. Despite their many spiritual differences, there’s no doubt that this is a conclusion arrived at by both Buddhism and Christianity. Yes, the ugliness is unavoidable. But just as prevalent are immense reservoirs of beauty.

Mizushima is compelled in the inter most catacombs of his being to rescue the bodies of his brothers-in-arms that their spirits might rest in peace for posterity. It seems like such a small even insignificant act especially in response to such a cataclysmic war. But it’s one man’s calling. It is not for a mere man to know the answers to all the plaguing questions. All we can do is ease the suffering. For him, it is something. For him, it is enough.

What lends urgency to the story is the very fact that Mizushima’s entire company is frantically trying to obtain news of his whereabouts as they are getting ready to be shipped home. One of their most faithful messengers is a kindly old lady who learned some Japanese dialect. She can only give them small morsels but they cling to some hope. First, they think he’s been killed. Then, they think they’ve passed him on a bridge. Finally, they get their closure.

The candor is nearly startling especially put in relief with Ichikawa’s later work Fires on The Plain which paints a starkly different picture (or a very different side of the same picture). Likewise, this movie is aided by a script penned by his wife and close collaborator Natto Wada.

What we are left with are clear resounding strains of pacifism but by no means does it feel belligerent. What is conveyed is the sheer meaninglessness of war. However, it’s done through different avenues than his later work.

The film is bookended by the phrase, “The soil of Burma is red and so are its rocks.” The mind quickly flies to the pints of blood that were spilled across this terrain. It’s a grim reminder and yet The Burmese Harp, despite being a bittersweet tale, does boast hope. In the wake of war, such hopefulness is indispensable. You cannot progress without it.

4/5 Stars

Fires on the Plain (1959)

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The opening images of Fires on the Plain nearly catch you off guard. Not only are we thrown into a dialogue sequence that we have yet to grasp but much like Ozu would have a penchant for doing, director Kon Ichikawa photographs two Japanese soldiers head on so their conversation and reactions face the camera directly. It’s the first of numerous times where the film messes around with visual convention. But that’s not the half of it.

Fires on the Plain proves to be a repeatedly idiosyncratic war film while subsequently becoming one of the most appalling. As an audience, we are privy to one Japanese soldier’s listless pilgrimage across the bleak and generally decimated terrain. There’s no goal in sight. No reason even to stay alive. He is stricken with tuberculosis but the hospital, drowning in casualties already, won’t take him because he’s not fatal enough.

His commanding officer, who berated him in the opening minutes for returning to his starving unit, told him to try the hospital again or else use his grenade to kill himself and uphold his duty.

Ichikawa frames his pointless journey with unconventional camera setups that are considerably jarring if not completely detached. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) lumbers up each hill mechanically. Hacks his way through the underbrush. There’s little meaning to his movements. Any incoming threat seems inconsequential in spite of hikes in dramatic scoring. Still, he wanders through ghost towns and fresh graveyards. Rather haphazardly skewers a stray mutt with his bayonet. Guns down a local inside a hut as part of his constant search for food. Another villager gets away in a boat.

By this point, Tamura hardly cares anymore and proceeds to drop his useless firearm into a river; there are no bullets left. When he’s not alone he joins the most beleaguered band of squatters as they blindly wander toward their evacuation point together but no less pitiful.

It’s not a film to shie away from the stomach-churning, grotesque, forlorn, utterly hopeless realities of what war really is. Fields strewn with dead bodies. Heaps of skeletal remains. Hospitals with abhorrent conditions. Wild tales of men eating human flesh just to stay alive in New Guinea. Wading through mud. Playing dead with incoming enemy fighters. There’s little respite from this onslaught.

It becomes so absurdly hopeless it’s almost funny. What else is there to resort to? In the rain, trampling through the underbrush, first, one soldier sees a pair of discarded boots and switches his worn pair with these. This swapping continues with another man. The first man’s trash is his treasure. By the time our protagonist gets there, the boots left over are completely worn through but his boots have no soles either so he just tosses them on the ground and resigns himself to walking barefoot.

This is insanity. It’s cruddy. Absolutely dreadful imagery again and again and again. There’s a certain point where it simply becomes an act of survival — nearly monotonous in its never-ending, never ceasing plodding toward an ultimatum. We must begin to ask questions. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why must we go through this suffering and inflict pain and injury on our fellow man? We even resort to infighting just to survive.

If you came in with any idealized visions of warfare still intact, Ichikawa’s intent is to rip those preconceptions away limb from limb. There is no good in war. Only vile, putrid, horrible, unthinkable things that extinguish life and crush the human spirit.

Such moments prove to make Fires on the Plain a perfect counterpoint to Hollywood’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) going far beyond their choices in palette. Because Ichikawa’s film takes it’s black and white cinematography and carries it into all aspects of the production. It’s the nitty-gritty, the somber, the absolute disgusting side of war dolled out without much hesitation.

It fits nicely into the world developed in pictures such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and Red Badge of Courage (1951), except one can contend that Ichikawa takes it even further into the abyss. In fact, it would also serve as a fine companion piece for the provocative docu-drama The General’s Naked Army Marches On (1987).

However, not for a moment would I bash David Lean’s landmark epic nor the performances of such titans as Alec Guinness and William Holden. The pictures succeed in their portrayals in part because of their contrasting approaches to the same futility of war. That statement is made in both but the mode of expression is radically different.

If my recollections are correct we never hear explicitly where the action takes place though we can make many educated assumptions. Fittingly, in the last frame, we are told. The Philippine Front, 1945. Not that it matters. It could have been any war in any place.

There are anti-war statements and there are absolute anti-war immersions, arguably none more devastating than Kon Ichikawa’s effort here. Because to be trapped knee deep in this hell hole you know there is no way that such a world should exist. And yet we cannot be so naive to believe that such a shocking scenario is only of the imagination. It’s a troubling film to watch because we can’t help but be assaulted with the truth even as we would like nothing better than to bury it.

How can life get to such an intolerable point where death is perceived to be a greater gift than life? In not so flippant terms, maybe war is hell. Man turned against man. There is no harmony. There is no peace,  only chaos and destruction waiting for us around every corner.

The novel on which the film was based purportedly ends with our narrator taking on a Christian perspective and gaining a more optimistic outlook on Man and life after the war. However, I have few qualms with Ichikawa’s interpretation, though more downbeat, it makes the equally frank assertion that Man is prone to evil and violence. If Man was wholly good there would be no war. But something quakes within us that makes us belligerent. The age-old question remains what or who can save us from this world of death?

4/5 Stars

The Clock (1945)

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May 25th, 1945. That’s when The Clock was originally released. To save you doing all the mental calculations V-E Day was on Tuesday, May 8th and the folks at home were ready for the war to be over. So in such an environment, this is hardly a war film and it can’t even claim to be a post-war picture like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It’s floating in limbo.

This is the story of a fresh-faced soldier boy in the big city (Robert Walker) constantly craning his neck in awe of skyscrapers and cowering a little bit under the weight of them all. As such he’s constantly being bumped into, like a tourist perpetually lost. From such a moment springs an almost unforgivable meet-cute we can spy from a mile away. She trips over him and loses a heel.

But our stars are winsome and their persons genuine in nature in the days when that was unequivocally so. Corporal Joe Allen (Walker) proves to be to New York City what Mr. Smith was to Washington D.C. He even rides the very same sightseeing bus. He’s also a bit of an idealistic builder not unlike George Bailey.

The soldier and the gal he asks to follow a piece, end up taking a Central Park stroll together followed by a tour of the local art museum, taking a load off, butt up against an Egyptian sphinx. There’s something inherently refreshing about its meandering wanderings through New York City. It gives this illusion of circumstance where there is no clear-cut agenda. In a moment of decision, he goes pell-mell chasing after her bus because he knows something special is onboard and he sets up a date just like that.

Vincente Minnelli is looking out for his heroine as Judy Garland was his own new romantic interest but his camera setups also reflect a stewardship over the contents of the film with his usual array of fluid shots. Far from just taking care of Garland you always get a sense Minnelli is watching out for all his actors with his camera often walking alongside them. She proves to be a fine performer sans singing and although long remembered for Strangers on a Train (1951) and his tumultuous personal life, Robert Walker undoubtedly exudes a naive candor of his own.

It’s always striking how Hollywood was able to cast a certain vision of the every day while reality was oftentimes so different. One aspect of that was the wartime shortages which made shooting on location highly impractical so everything from train stations to exteriors were created on the MGM lot to closely mirror their real-life counterparts and it, for the most part, takes very well. We feel like we are traveling through the big city with a soldier and a gal. At any rate, the city crowds feel realistically suffocating.

But beyond the simple (or not so simple) realm of sound stages and set design it also extends to the actors themselves. Robert Walker who played opposite his wife in the epic home front drama Since You Went Away (1944), had a horrid time getting through the picture as their marriage was on the rocks.

By the time he got to The Clock he had been overtaken by alcohol addiction and Jennifer Jones was all but on the way to marrying executive David O. Selznick. Judy Garland on her part, that shining beacon of traditional Americana was struggling with an addiction of her own and after some creative differences with Fred Zinnemann, she had her soon-to-be husband Vincente Minnelli brought on to revitalize the production.

In these ways, it becomes obvious how there’s almost a conflicting double life going on in front of and behind the camera and yet there’s no doubting that this picture is brimming with sincerity whether partially made up or perfectly simulated. It still works.

You can undoubtedly see the same fascination with the very conversations and interactions that make up a relationship in everyday environments. The walking and talking we do when we share time together. The silly things we get caught up on or pop into our heads on a whim. And yes, there is a bit of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) in Minnelli’s picture for those who wish to draw the parallels but the beauty of it is The Clock is obviously not trying to be anything else. It takes simple joy in its story and the characters it holds in its stead.

It’s a film that dares have a scene where our two leads sit in a park, silent for a solitary moment as they listen to the street noise emanating from the city center and breaking into their tranquility. Take another extended sequence where the two lovebirds catch a ride on a midnight milk wagon driven by that perennial favorite James Gleason.

He’s the local milkman waiting impatiently for his request on the late night radio station and intent on some company along the route. But a flat tire puts him out of commission only to bring about another inspired piece of casting. Keenan Wynn as a drunk appears for mere minutes and earns high billing in the picture. It’s worth it. When our stars are allowed to sink into the periphery, the accents of the real world come into focus.

It’s equally true that those are the exact moments where you see the extent of another person’s character. Because it’s not simply the two of you but you get the opportunity to see them in a context with other people and that’s often very telling about who they are. Depending on the perceptions it can make you fall even more in love with someone and seeing as these two individuals help their new friend with his milk run, you can just imagine what it does for their relationship.

As for James Gleason and Lucille Gleason, they make the quintessential cute old couple and that’s because they truly are spinning their wisdom and bickering like only the most steadfast wedded folks do. The last leg of the film is when it goes for drama turning into a literal race against the clock bookended by one of the most distinct courthouse weddings ever captured. But even this picture doesn’t end there. Further still, it sinks back into this odd shadowland between the drama and the happy ending.

We could venture a guess it settles in on a realistic denouement where life isn’t always as we would like it but we can still love people deeply and do not regret the decisions we have made. As we walk off into the crowd with Judy Garland there is little to no regret only a faint hope for a future and assurance in the institution of marriage as something worth pursuing.

They are traditional values and yet somehow, in this context, there’s something comforting about them. Minnelli has spun his magic on us even as the cinematic in its so-called reality slowly drifts away from the Hollywood marital standards of its stars. It’s both an idealized vision and a genuine one.

4/5 Stars

So Proudly We Hail! (1943)

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There were three reasons to watch this film. Their names are Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake. Yes, this picture directed by Mark Sandrich was fairly groundbreaking in its day for telling a story about nurses during WWII but there might be mixed feelings across the board about how the story unfolds.

While I still try and organize my own perceptions, a moment can be allotted to take stock of our stars. Claudette Colbert strays quite far away from her comedic sweet spot in a dramatic role as Lt. “Davy” Davison that she nevertheless conducts with a compelling fortitude.

The studio also all but got rid of the iconic peekaboo bangs of Lake and exchanges any of her many noir gals opposite Alan Ladd for a vengeful nurse Olivia D’Arcy traumatized by Pearl Harbor and the dirty Japs who ruined her life forever. She’s practically a different person.

Although Paulette Goddard hardly ever appears in a sweater, the boys are still enthralled by her like always but even she is given a major reality check about the hardships of war. And that’s part of what this film was meant to reflect — that it wasn’t just the brave soldiers who were putting their lives on the line — but there were legions of women too sacrificing and giving their all.

Paramount also did a very commendable thing in trying to de-glamorize their biggest stars in deference to delivering this stirring patriotic drama as a eulogy to all of those at Bataan and other South Pacific battlegrounds. But while the intentions are admirable, there’s this underlying feeling that Hollywood still creeps into the story far too often, which makes sense, since this is a Hollywood picture.

It all begins with an extended flashback as the film follows the nurses through their deployment. First, there are the tearful send-offs leaving families for the first time or gals leaving their best guys. In the case of Joan (Goddard) she gets away from two of them and by the time she’s onboard, it looks like she’s already landed a new one (Sonny Tufts).

In the wake of the hysteria following Pearl Harbor, the nurses are for the most part caught in a fog of war without any knowledge of what is going on and the Japs have all but jammed their communications. They continue floating around listlessly just waiting for some definitive plan of action.

When it comes and they are brought in as reinforcements to the Bataan peninsula. Here finally it seems we get our first look at the front lines. What reality really looked like. The mayhem that overtakes any war zone. It’s pure insanity. By the film’s midpoint, they are being pushed back and the evacuation becomes a life or death ordeal. We finally begin to see the casualties.

What follows is a single moment that comes like a kick in the gut and it’s a segment in the picture that we cannot criticize for being hammy or over-sentimental, delivering a visceral shock that’s a painful reminder of how abhorrent and horrible war truly is. Lake is allowed to let her hair down for a final instant as she leaves the picture in searing fashion. It burns but there is another inkling that suggests that this might really be emotional manipulation.

My main qualm is that the picture feels fake in a theatrical sense. If it’s true that film puts a mirror to reality, it also seems equally true that we often only care to see what we want to in that reflection. We document that and then do a little touch up afterward. James Agee harshly likened So Proudly We Hail to war through the lens of a housewife’s magazine romance.

My own feelings are perhaps more nuanced. It’s propaganda to be taken with a grain of salt. In one sense it couldn’t be more realistic as a document because it comes out of that time and place as a timely film while the war was still raging abroad. But the narrative is still so wrapped up in romance and melodrama built out of said love stories or personal torment. And yet it indubitably has its affecting moments that are difficult to brush off.

What I really appreciated was that its intentions were honorable. To give a spotlight to women and it also depicted a number of Asian allies in a positive light whether they be Chinese (Hugh Ho Chang) or Filipino children dreaming that Superman will come to save the day.

All this is to say in convoluted terms that So Proudly Hail cannot be condemned as an awful picture outright. It does some things well and others with a level of mediocrity but what do my words matter now nearly 75 years after the film came out?

Hopefully, contemporary audiences were uplifted by its intentions. I’m inclined to recommend another picture taking place during the same time. They Were Expendable (1945) directed by John Ford and starring the trio of Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed is another title worth considering.

3.5/5 Stars

“I’m a Chinese madame, not an Indian.” Hugh Ho Chang as Ling Chee

My Favorite Blonde (1942)

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Bob Hope was one of the 20th centuries greatest personalities but sometimes his pictures weren’t always up to par. The most obvious exceptions would be the majority of the Road pictures with Bing Crosby, The Paleface films with Jane Russell, and this fun addition pairing our beloved funnyman with the divine Madeleine Carroll.

It’s not quite a Hitchcockian thriller but Madeleine Carroll provides an icy blonde secret agent while Bob Hope is in usual form with his typical smart-mouthed nitwit characterization that garners our love.

Carrying over some of the world from The 39 Steps (1935), enemy agents are looking to intercept invaluable secrets that are needing to make their way to America in the hands of Karen Bentley (Carroll). Her partner has already bought it and she has two tails observing her every move.

The place she chooses to hide away at is the backstage of a vaudeville joint where Larry Haines (Hope) is just finishing up with his penguin partner Percy who has a big contract coming in Hollywood. Larry has been included on the bill as an afterthought.

But all that is put on hold when this beautiful, mysterious woman wanders into his life. He gladly entertains her company and yet he doesn’t know what else comes with that proposition. In typical fashion, Hope’s character always bites off more than he can chew whether it be villains or women. He’s got no answer for either.

A near wordless confrontation occurs on a train as the girl hides and Hope sits with some leering thugs in the club car, filling the moments with nervous comedy bits.

His answer for Ms. Bentley isn’t much better. It’s the same type of patter that would be recycled in My Favorite Brunette (1946) or other Hope sketches where the woman plays it straight, seducing him and he’s outright oblivious from the first advance. He has no defenses to speak of. A few strands of cajoling baby talk and he’s putty in their hands.

But the gal gives him so many mixed signals he’s libel to run out on her cockamamie ways or let her have it (Yeah the little man is hurt and if the little woman doesn’t watch it she’s going to get a little hit in the head). Still, they somehow keep winding up in the same places. Perhaps it’s because she’s conveniently hidden vital international secrets under the lapel of his coat.

He somehow feels like the only normal fellow in a screwed up world but if everyone else is playing cloak and dagger games, that becomes the new normal and he begins to look all the crazier turning increasingly more paranoid due to the various antics around him. Maybe he doesn’t have all his buttons after all. If he’s our new archetype for the man-on-the-run, then I’m Cary Grant.

Some throwaway expositional dialogue over the film’s MacGuffin gives Hope ample time to retort with a joke about his ring being filled with Benny Goodman and his band (They had to drop a clarinet player. It was a little crowded). That exact moment exquisitely sums up why the film works. There’s the spy thriller arc that is continuously deflated and lampooned by Hope’s particular brand of comedic zingers.

An ingenious ploy to escape an apartment complex crawling with baddies leads to a rampage to trash the joint while drumming up some marital pandemonium that’s bound to bring some police. It’s sheer comedic chaos and…it works. Ironically, Cary Grant would reuse a similar gag in North by Northwest (1959).

Another moment Hope is taking on the mantle of a baby specialist, Doctor Higbie, much in the way that Robert Donat joins a political rally in The 39 Steps. Both men pull quips out of their backsides to stirring results on their way to their next juncture on their ever-changing itinerary.

Thanks to an absolutely nefarious move by that criminal mastermind Gale Sondergaard, a murder is called in by the real culprits and pinned on our heroes. But Hope continually proves his faithfulness or at least how much he likes the blonde with the face and a certain je ne sais quoi. And that’s part of Carroll’s allure but far from being a glamorous Brit, she proves just how much she can pull off the more screwball elements that Hope already seems at home in.

The home stretch leads to California with the murder rap still hanging over their heads and a funeral parlor in their sights. To get there it took them a bus, a plane, a winking Bing Crosby cameo, and a few watermelons a piece.

Like the best classic thrillers it’s not so much the outcome but the road it takes to get there that we relish the most. This one has a lot of lovely inane speed bumps that perfectly accentuate the utter contrast between Madeleine Carroll and Bob Hope’s character types. They actually end up making a witty romantic couple and Hope as always gets the last laugh in on camera.

4/5 Stars

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw_Ridge_poster.pngHacksaw Ridge is not for the squeamish, its greatest irony being that for a film about a man who took on the mantle of a conscientious objector and would not brandish firearms, it is a very violent film, even aggressively so. But Mel Gibson, after all, is the man who brought us Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) while starring in The Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises.

Like its predecessors, this picture does not shy away from any depiction of violence but you can make the case that it is not violence for violence sake. There is a broader and some would say even a spiritual message behind it. Still, the chaos, the images of war, the killing, and the suffering are all there on the screen. No doubt about it.

Thus, Mel Gibson’s war biopic on Desmond Doss will not be a film for everyone. Perhaps it was not even a film that I truly needed to see (as I briefly skipped over some of the gorier sequences). Because the truth is I have some idea of what war can do to a man’s body. It was not something I needed to be reminded of.

However, this story is nevertheless an uplifting one and if nothing else it was a story I needed to unearth. Because as is usually customary, something as volatile and pernicious as war always seems to bring out not only the very worst in people but in others, the very best and those individuals take on the banner of heroes.

In the case of the unassuming Desmond Doss, it meant giving life instead of taking it away. And without a doubt, it’s a noble ideal and as a Seventh Day Adventist, he held ardently to that belief. Still, a major component of war is taking the life of your enemy. Some would say even that there is a time of killing especially going up against certain foes.

But Doss would not budge on the tenets of his beliefs and I think any person can laud him for that. There’s no hint of hypocrisy or contempt in him only an unswerving adherence to what he deemed to be right.

For these very reasons, it’s quite easy to draw parallels between Doss and Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire (1981) who was another man of faith who would not compromise his belief in keeping the Sabbath either. What further connects these stories is how these men took those circumstances and made a name for themselves beyond them. For Liddell, it was winning gold during the Olympics and for Doss it meant saving countless men on the battlefield.

However, Hacksaw Ridge’s closest and most obvious predecessor might be Sergeant York (1941) which while being about a similar figure who held to his convictions, was nevertheless a great deal tamer and felt more focused on its hero in light of American’s imminent involvement in WWII. It was a patriotic propaganda picture starring one of the era’s icons in Gary Cooper and one of its up and coming girls-next-door Joan Leslie.

In fact, Hacksaw Ridge is carried by a romance of its own and while not a substantial portion of the narrative, the romance between Doss and a local nurse is one that does tug at the heartstrings for the very fact that we know a version of this meet-cute probably existed in real life.

There’s also something deeply moving when the camera dies and we first see Mr. Doss himself looking back on his earlier exploits. His humility stands front and center. Dare I say, he seems an ordinary fellow but sometimes it’s those very fellows who prove just what extraordinary things men can be capable of in the midst of tremendous duress. The numbers speak for themselves. He saved 75 soldiers in one day’s work. There are few words applicable except Awesome.

Andrew Garfield once again proves his seriousness as an “actor” and his joint performances in Hacksaw Ridge as well as Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016) make for an extraordinary one-two showing on the year. Meanwhile, both Vince Vaughan and Hugo Weaving inhabit roles that you would not initially peg them for. But all and all, if you can tolerate Hacksaw Ridge’s gore, there is a great deal that can be gleaned from this story of unassuming heroism.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

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Like you I know what it is to forget and yet still be endowed with memory. These are only a couple fragments from this film stitched together but in many ways, they encapsulate the essence of its core themes.

I suppose such words ring true for all of us and Alain Resnais’ film is composed of a plethora of equally perplexing paradoxes that though never quite coming into full clarity nevertheless prove Hiroshima Mon Amour to be one of the most bewitching cinematic expressions born out of the French cinema. Without question, it is an undisputed touchstone of the forthcoming Nouvelle Vague that blew up the conventions of the 1960s.

The first time I ever saw Resnais’ romantic meditation there was something so arresting about it such that I will never forget the likes of Nevers and Hiroshima — the two entities that make up this film as not simply places of past tragedy but crucial to the very identities of the characters who come within the frame.

We never need to know the true names of this French actress (Emanuelle Riva in a riveting performance of immense grace) and the equally candid Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who fall into the throes of a passionate affair together. They are represented well enough by these monikers — symbolic torchbearers of these names — emblematic of the age they ascribed to.

Like L’Eclisse (1961) or Dr. Strangelove (1964), this film too is in the wake of the atomic bomb and any subsequent discussion thereof cinematically speaking must at least acknowledge such films. Part of the necessity in this specific case is how the film takes a particular event and then extends it and intertwines it with so much more in such a way that it not only a monument to Hiroshima but a testament to human history.

We are people so quick to forget. We lose sight of the past. We bury our hurts deep inside. We are doomed to repeat many of our past mistakes. But still, more so we are capable of passions, emotions, and love that carry us through times of tribulation, pain, and suffering. It’s something to be immensely thankful for.

Resnais film is one of the great visual marvels of the 20th century with its graceful fade-outs and flashbacks — delicate camera zooms connecting memories and realities. Stylistically there’s a continuous poetic cadence of image and dialogue, repetitions with recollections. A solemnity exists in its very purposeful pacing that ties everything together with the utmost elegance which, far from being a muddled hodgepodge, forms a perplexing experience never to be fully elucidated.

It has very few equals and remains so as an achievement that can hardly be defined as a typical love story or any such blase categorization. It’s what we might conceive when we think of Film as art worthy of any sphere of discussion.

There’s hardly a meter to begin measuring how it makes us feel or the emotions it elicits.  Somehow connected to fate — two lovers crossing paths — these two individuals seemingly meant to be together and tied together not only by their romantic passion but their own histories. The striking flashback structure subsequently creates tiny microcosms of emotional resonance that flood with abandon.

Recollections of past scars unearthed over the course of the love affair. Both historical and personal. We have the depiction of the devastation in the aftermath of the bomb with images that are all but scorched into our mind’s eye with an unfettered pointedness. We are meant to see these images and take into account how they came into being.

But there’s also the personal trauma brought to the fore and exhumed with a kind of transfixing equanimity that’s hard to fully comprehend but nevertheless leaves us with something to ruminate over. Equally telling is the passage of time as memories begin to fade and minds begin to slowly forget. Again, that is the curse of our beings that we must fight to remember what has come before.

It’s no small coincidence that the cafe that our two lovers rendezvous at is none other than the Casablanca. The yearning and the melancholy are right there in the lyric of “As Time Goes By.” If you’ve never consciously thought about their meaning before then Resnais film might make you hear them anew and be moved.  Love, memory, and heartbreak are often so closely tied together. This is a film that dwells on each and finds some amount of catharsis.

The diversity of the crew is another glimmering bright spot of this joint partnership between nations with an abundance of involvement from both French and Japanese staff taking the shoot on-location to both countries. It’s a lovely marriage and a bond is formed by the picture just as the romance signals a tight-knit cross-cultural relationship on screen.

For some, individuals somewhat attuned to diverse backgrounds, Hiroshima Mon Amour is utterly groundbreaking in this realm. Though its cast is small, it’s a mighty statement having a French woman playing opposite a Japanese man. 50 years on it remains as an image that we do not see all that often, despite the changing of the tides.

Their closeness is palpable. Hands clasping tenderly. Eyes gazing with the deepest longing. The intimacy that they share speaks volumes. Even as it’s undercut by the morose strains of infidelity and wistfulness; this is a love story like few others.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

 

Review: Notorious (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/5 Stars