Classic Movie Review: Lifeboat (1944)

Title: Lifeboat
Release Date: January 11, 1944
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: 20th Century Fox

Since I started my Classic Movie project in August, I’ve watched movies on streaming services on my iPad and DVD on my television.  With the Lifeboat, I took the opportunity to watch a 75th anniversary screening at Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.  And am I ever glad I did, because it is a well-scripted, well-acted, and compelling drama.

The film begins in media res with foreign correspondent Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) alone in the titular lifeboat amid the wreckage of a merchant vessel and a U-boat in the North Atlantic.  She looks particularly well-dressed and highfalutin for the situation, but demonstrates her knowledge and resourcefulness over the course of the film.  Other survivors climb on board, including:

  • Gus Smith (William Bendix), an American merchant marine ashamed of his German ancestry and suffering from an injured leg. He’s kind of your city kid archetype.
  • Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a U.S. Army nurse, a competent and compassionate healer.  Anderson was strong in this role (and also quite beautiful) and I’m surprised that she doesn’t seem to have any other major movie roles.
  • John Kovac (John Hodiak), an engine man crewman, who is the “tough but fair” man who takes the leadership role over the survivors.
  • Charles J. “Ritt” Rittenhouse Jr. (Henry Hull), a prosperous industrialist who initially takes the leadership role, but defers to Kovac’s experience. Nevertheless he remains a more compassionate voice in conflict with Kovac.
  • Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), the ship’s steward, who proves to the most heroic among the survivors and a quiet leader.  Joe is the only Black character in the movie and is written as a stereotypical/token character but Lee’s performance really elevates Joe.
  • Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn), radioman, who is a friend of Gus and forms a bond with Alice.
  • Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), a young British woman who is traumatized by the death of her infant child.

The last person to climb on board is a survivor of the U-boat wreck, Willi (Walter Slezak).  His presence on the lifeboat is the center of much of the conflict in the film as some, particularly Kovac, argue that he should be allowed to drown, while Connie, Ritt, and Stanley argue that would be inhumane and that he should be held as a prisoner. For a movie made in the middle of World War II, Willi is presented as a complex character and sometimes sympathetically, but ultimately untrustworthy.  The key lesson for viewers watching this film in 2019 is “Don’t let Nazis take charge!”

In addition to their German prisoner, the crew of the lifeboat have to contend with the loss of their food, water, and supplies, no navigational tools, Gus’ leg turning gangrenous, and a vicious storm.  Amid the depiction of conflict and deprivation in a close space, there are still many moments of humanity and even humor.  For example, there’s a running gag of Connie inadvertently losing her prized possessions to the sea. The final scenes of the movie are set among a stunning reenactment of a battle at sea and is suitably terrifying.

This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen.  Hitchcock’s direction is terrific and Bankhead, Lee, and Slezak in particular put in great performances in a strong cast.  It’s also interesting to note that the screenplay is by John Steinbeck, his first fictional work created for film.  Take the opportunity to see this movie if it plays at your local arthouse cinema.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

Title: Double Indemnity
Release Date: July 3, 1944
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

When I was a kid, Fred MacMurray always appeared in goofball family films (and the tv series Eight is Enough) as a nice but dimwitted father figure.  I also recall him playing a more serious role in The Caine Mutiny, but generally “starring Fred MacMurray” equaled a bad movie for me.  Well, watching Double Indemnity makes me reevaluate my opinion of MacMurray’s acting skill.  And so much for being a “nice guy,” he’s positively slimy in this movie.

MacMurray plays successful insurance salesman Walter Neff.  On a house call to encourage a client to renew his auto insurance, he instead meets the client’s beautiful wife, Phyllis Dietrichson.  While flirtatiously bantering, Phyllis inquires about taking out a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge.  Neff initially acts outraged over the implication of murdering her husband for money.  Without too much convincing, though, Neff comes up with a plan to have Mr. Dietrichson killed in way that it looks like an accident on a train, so the plan will pay out double.

The stunning thing about this movie is that although Neff and Phyllis talk about running off together with the money, neither one of them appears to be particularly attracted to the other or interested in the money.  They’re behavior is all the more appalling because they seem to be driven by the desire to commit a murder and get away with it rather than lust or greed.  Everything is cold and calculated.

The best part of this movie is Edward G. Robinson as the claims adjuster Barton Keyes.  Tasked with saving the insurance company from paying out settlements, Keyes is an expert at determining when there’s something wrong with the claims.  Keyes also admires Neff and acts as his mentor and a father figure.  Robinson is brilliant in figuring out the details of how the murder went down while still being blind to the fact that the younger man he admires is the murderer.

Double Indemnity is a groundbreaking progenitor of the film noir genre, and its cinematography and lighting have influenced dozens of subsequent films.  The snappy dialogue is also memorable, much of it provided by crime novelist Raymond Chandler, who made his screenwriting debut, collaborating with the director, Billy Wilder.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Title: Shadow of a Doubt
Release Date: January 12, 1943
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Skirball Productions

Shadow of the Doubt answers the question “what if a noir thriller crashed in a family sitcom?” Joseph Cotten is Charles Oakley, a man on the run, who decides to lay low with the family of his sister, Ann Newton (Edna May Wonacott), in Santa Rosa, California.  There he is reunited with his teenage niece and namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright), who adores him.  Over time Uncle Charlies strange behavior and the arrival of detectives makes Charlie suspect that her uncle is the Merry Widow Murderer.

Unlike Suspicion, the plot is never ambiguous about Uncle Charlie’s guilt, so its more of a story of what Charlie can discover and if she can avoid becoming a victim herself.  Amidst the noir thriller bits there’s a lot of comic  family squabble and a romantic comedy as Charlie is wooed by one of the detectives (Macdonald Carey).  Teresa Wright positively shines in this movie, which was her first top-billing, and it makes me wonder why she didn’t become a bigger star.  Joseph Cotten, who I’ve liked in other films, seems to be mailing it in on this one.

Rating: ***


Movie Review: Inception (2010)

Title: Inception
Release Date: July 16, 2010
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Legendary Pictures | Syncopy

This action/thriller drops one right into the midst of a heist where corporate espionage is achieved by using technology that allows entry into other peoples’ dreams to steal their most sensitive thoughts.  Leonard DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb leads a team of extractors while contending with the guilt of losing his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who appears as an antagonist in his dreams.  Businessman Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Dom with a proposal to perform “inception,” that is rather than extracting a thought, actually placing an idea into the mind of his main rival’s heir.

In typical heist movie fashion, Dom pulls together a team to carry of the inception. A key figure is Ariadne (Ellen Page), an architecture grad student new to the shared dream world who asks all the questions the audience wants to ask.  Nevertheless, Inception doesn’t make much sense and like The Matrix – a clear influence – internal logic is dispensed with if there’s an opportunity for a cool gun battle.  I do like Inception more than The Matrix, though, as it has much more heart.  And honestly, who ever expects dreams to make sense?

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Stormy Weather (1943)

Title: Stormy Weather
Release Date: July 21, 1943
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Production Company: 20th Century Fox

Back when I reviewed Swing Time I noted that it would’ve been better if Fred Astaire include African American artists in his tribute to Bill Robinson.  Then I realized I was a hypocrite since my list of classic movies had no Bill Robinson films.  So I had Stormy Weather, a musical-dance-romance movie featuring the top African American performers of the era.

The movie is a loose biography of Bill Robinson’s career.  How loose?  The movie begins with Robinson’s character Bill Williamson returning from the First World War.  In reality, Robinson fought in the Spanish American War, and entertained the troops in WWI.  So we just ignore that the 64-year-old Robinson is playing a much younger character, especially when he strikes up a romance with 25-year-old Lena Horne’s character Selina Rogers.

The film is essentially a tribute to a quarter century of African American entertainment and follows Bill Williamson through a film packed with with song and dance numbers.  I was actually surprised that the plot actually holds together based on the standard of movie musical plots.  The movie begins with Bill going to a Harlem nightclub with his army buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson) where he meets Selina and her manager/band leader Chick Bailey (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace) who becomes Bill’s romantic rival.

Bill returns home to Memphis, stopping to scat on a riverboat, and taking up a job as dancer/waiter in a night club where Ada Brown and Fats Waller sing the blues.  They’re all hired to join Chick’s touring act and eventually Bill outshines Chick and leaves to start his own company.  Bill and Selina split up but get back together in a night club scene featuring Cab Calloway (the generational difference between the two performers is acknowledged in a humorous scene where Robinson can’t understand Calloway’s jive talk).  Lena Horne sings the stunning “Stormy Weather” and the brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform a remarkable dance where they leap down steps and land in splits and don’t suffer groin injuries!

It’s an amazingly entertaining film, and I’m leaving out a lot of the great performers and numbers.  There are times where the movie leans into the stereotypes of African Americans that Hollywood audiences expected (for example, a comedy duo perform in blackface).  But there’s also a sense of these artists reclaiming something from these stereotypes and showing how hard they strive toward excellence.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Cat People

Title: Cat People
Release Date: December 25, 1942
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures

This horror/thriller stars French actress Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian immigrant in New York who believes she is descended from people who turn into cats if aroused or angered.   She meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and they strike up a relationship and eventually marriage, although Irena refuses to kiss (and presumably consummate the marriage although the Hays Code won’t allow this to be mentioned).  Oliver is patient and tries to get Irena psychiatric help.  Eventually, Oliver’s work colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) admits she’s in love with Oliver and they begin spending more time together.  Irena is enraged with jealousy and Alice finds herself being tracked by an animal.  The film makes it’s low budget an advantage by keeping the panther in shadows and making the audience question whether the big cat is real or merely psychological.

Roger Ebert classifies Cat People as a Great Movie, but I believe it is merely good.

Rating: ***

ScaryMovie Review: A Quiet Place (2018)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: A Quiet Place
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Director: John Krasinski
Production Company:  Platinum Dunes | Sunday Night Productions

When I saw The Last Jedi in 2017, it was preceded by a trailer for A Quiet Place that Freaked. My. Kids. Out!  While I still think that was inappropriate trailer placement, I was curious to see the film (on my own, when the kids weren’t around). The film depicts a family in rural New York trying to survive in a world where alien creatures with an acute sense of hearing hunt any animals that make loud sounds.  Director John Krasinski stars with real life wife Emily Blunt as Lee and Evelyn Abbott, the parents of three children striving to live an ordinary life while avoiding being killed by the monsters.

Their eldest daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf and knowledge of American Sign Language allows the family to communicate when speaking is deadly. The lack of dialogue and minimal use of music in the film is very effective and emphasizes the ambient sounds in this world.  At times sounds drops out entirely to show Regan’s point of view.  Noah Jupe plays the middle child Marcus, and Cade Woodward plays the youngest child with an unfortunate affinity for an electronic Space Shuttle toy.

If raising kids in a post-apocalyptic world where noises are verboten (my family would be totally dinner in the first days, I’m sure) is hard enough, Evelyn becomes pregnant. The family prepares for labor and an an infant by creating a soundproof basement and adding an anesthetic gas to the baby gear.  Of course, despite all their preparations, things go very wrong.

Horror films generally conclude in one of two ways: either the evil is defeated and normal life resumes, or the protagonists are defeated and evil prevails.  This film ends on a moment of discovery, which is both cathartic and, of course, sets up a sequel that was recently announced.  A Quiet Place is a well-acted, structured, suspenseful, and downright terrifying film!

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: Get Out (2017)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: Get Out
Release Date: February 24, 2017
Director: Jordan Peele
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions | QC Entertainment | Monkeypaw Productions

Get Out is a chilling thriller and social commentary on race starring Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, an African American photographer in New York City.  His white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) invites him to visit her parent’s large house in a remote suburb, promising Christ that they’re good liberals and not racist. Meeting Rose’s family and neighbors at a party leads to Chris dealing with numerous racial microaggressions.  But even more disturbing is the stilted behavior of the few other black people Chris encounters.

First time director Jordan Peele carries the suspense well for the first two thirds of the film, and it’s not a surprise that he now hosts the revival of The Twilight Zone as the movie has that kind of feel.  The final act is horrifically violent as Chris fights for his life, but it is also rather cathartic.  Symbolically, this movie works on many levels.  It depicts the ways that even “good liberal” white people are complicit in institutionalized racism.  It also relates the continuum of violence upon Black bodies through slavery to segregation to mass incarceration to police violence.  Finally, throughout American history, white people have seen Black culture as fashionable and appropriated it as their own, with characters in Get Out choosing to literally wear black bodies.

There are additional good performances from Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as Rose’s parents, and Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ loyal best friend, Rod.  This is an excellent film and definitely worth watching to catch the stuff I missed now that I know what the big twist is.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: The Witch (2015)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: The VVitch: A New England Folktale
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Director: Robert Eggers
Production Company: Parts and Labor | RT Features | Rooks Nest Entertainment | Maiden Voyage Pictures | Mott Street Pictures | Code Red Productions | Scythia Films | Pulse Films | Special Projects

New England is a spooky place, and to the Puritans of 1630 it was an untamed world of nightmares.  Although director Robert Eggers had to go to a remote part of Ontario to find an undeveloped place to film, the movie captures the dark and mysterious New England forest. This also may be the most authentic depiction of Puritan settlers on film drawing on original documents for the dialogue and research into religious and folklore beliefs. The Witch is also beautiful to look at, with most scenes filmed by natural light or candlelight, adding to the sense of eeriness.

The movie begins with a man, William (Ralph Ineson), getting exiled from a Puritan community.  He leads his family into the wilderness, building a small farmstead in a clearing by a foreboding forest.  His wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) feels the loss of her home in England, and grows increasingly overcome with grief as her children go missing.  The eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the main protagonist of the film, a teenager learning to take on adult responsibilities.  The next in line, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is an adolescent boy feeling the need to prove himself as a provider for his family.  Then there are the twin children Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) who are kids who basically do what kids do: play.  But that behavior is not acceptable in a family of religious zealots maintaining a farm in the wilderness, and Thomasin gets blamed for their “misbehavior” leading her to torment them by saying she’s a witch (big mistake!).

The family also has a newborn baby, Samuel (Axtun Henry Dube and Athan Conrad Dube), and while Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with him he is snatched away.  The movie makes it clear early on that there’s an actual witch living in the wood.  But a lot of suspense in this film is drawn from the sense that what we’re seeing is not reality.  Was the baby really just taken by a wolf? Is a family member possessed or merely delirious from an illness?  Do the animals act up because they’re agents of Satan or because they’re hungry and sick? Is the family torn apart because of the Devil or because their confined lives and religious zealotry make them susceptible to fear and mistrust? Are there really demons or are they hallucinating due to ergot from their spoiled crops.

The film wisely never answers these questions leaving everything unsettled and lingering.  This is not your typical horror film.  Jump scares are few and while the climax of the film is disturbingly violent, the camera does not linger on gore or its hidden in shadows.  The acting is good, particularly Taylor-Joy, whose unnaturally oversize eyes express a lot, and Ineson, who balances his outward devotion to God with the inward knowledge that he is failing to provide for his family.  Watch this one on a dark, rainy and windy night in New England for the extra effect.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: Black Swan (2010)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: Black Swan
Release Date: December 3, 2010
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Production Company: Cross Creek Pictures | Protozoa Pictures | Phoenix Pictures | Dune Entertainment

This isn’t a conventional choice for a horror film but it deals with the protagonist having a mental breakdown, hallucinations, sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders, and extremely unhealthy relationships, all things that are horrifying in their own ways.  Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a dancer selected for lead role in a New York City ballet company’s performance of Swan Lake.

Nina faces numerous conflicts, including internal, as she attempts to achieve “perfection” in her dance.  The company’s artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) drives her to let go of her inhibitions and makes unwanted sexual advances.  Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), was a dancer in her younger days and is a protective stage mother eager to command Nina’s career.  Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) is the former prima ballerina forced into retirement by Thomas, who takes out her resentment on Nina.  And then there is a new dancer to the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), who lacks Nina’s technical skills, but embodies the sensuality Thomas is looking for in his dancers, and she is appointed as Nina’s alternate.

Since the movie is presented from Nina’s point of view, we often see Lily as a rival, as Nina fears Lily will take her part.  I think in reality that Lily is actually friendly and only wants to reach out to Nina but suffers her projection.  As the narrative moves toward the opening night of Swan Lake, Nina’s hallucinations become more vivid and violent.  There’s a significant amount of body horror in this film, even when simply focusing on the dancer’s ordinary performance where the camera focuses on the sights and sounds of the stress on their bodies.

The movie is no doubt a bit cheezy and cliched.  There are some plot points that seemed staged to increase the drama without being realistic (like, would a prima ballerina really be responsible for putting on her own makeup alone in a dressing room?). Nevertheless, Portman’s strong acting helps make the film better.  I’m also impressed by the camera work that follows Portman around when she’s on stage which really draws one into the performance.

Rating: ***1/2