Classic Movie Review: The Wind (1928)


TitleThe Wind
Release Date:November 23, 1928
Director: Victor Sjöström
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Silent film star Lillian Gish starred in her last silent film as a young woman named Letty Mason, who travels west to live with a cousin who is like a brother, Beverly (Edward Earle).  All is not well in Sweetwater, Texas, though, as two ranchers want marry Letty, the creepy cattle buyer Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) pursues her relentlessly, and Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) is jealous of her.  Worst of all, the relentless wind torments poor Letty.

This movie is a straight-up melodrama to the point where I expected Gish to grab her heart and proclaim “I can’t pay the rent!” Having seen some other late-era silent films, I also don’t think the movie is particularly technically innovative, either. Mostly it’s a movie made on powerful wind machines and Gish flailing around like she’s on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  The best sequence is toward the end when in a fever dream Letty deals with the worst wind storm yet and the threat of sexual assault.  But it’s too little, too late in a movie that’s largely Hollywood hokum.

An interesting side note, much later in life, director Victor Sjöström starred in Wild Strawberries.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)


Title: The Night of the Hunter
Release Date: July 26, 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Production Company: Paul Gregory Productions
Summary/Review:

This movie is not what I expected.  I knew this was the movie with Robert Mitchum as a preacher (named Reverend Henry Powell) who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles.  I was under the impression that it was a noir detective film but it is not.  Instead, Powell is a man who marries widows and kills them for their money.

During one prison sentence he meets a bank robber/murder, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), and learns that the $10,000 he stole was never recovered. Upon release, Powell finds, woos, and marries Harper’s now widow Willa (Shelley Winters).  What he doesn’t count on is the stubborn resistance of the Harper’s son John (Billy Chapin), who is devoted in care of his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).

What I didn’t expect about this movie is just how weird it is.  The editing feels arbitrary and disjointed at times.  There are probably very expensive aerial shots early on, but then other parts of the film are deliberately filmed to appear like silent movies from 30-40 years earlier.  One sequence shows the children floating down a river (in a sound studio) with various live animals appearing in the foreground.  The sets often look deliberately artificial, like it’s a stage show. Then there’s an amazing shot of a dead body in a car under a river. It has to be seen to be believed.

Mitchum puts in the perfect performance as the charming and charismatic preacher who wins over the rural community before wooing and bringing Willa under his spell.  He then can also be thoroughly terrifying as he commits murder and relentlessly pursues John and Pearl.  Silent movie superstar Lillian Gish puts in a amazing performance as Rachel Cooper, a stern but kindly woman who takes in orphans. Billy Chapin holds his own as a child dealing with the most traumatic situations with resilience and initiative.

This movie came out at the height of the Cold War era when Christianity was touted as the answer to “godless Communism.” This movie must’ve seemed incredibly radical in the way that it skewers the hypocrisy of American Christianity.  At no time is it ever confirmed that Powell is not actually an ordained minister (although some guess that he’s a fraud), and he certainly seems to be acting on a real – if twisted – belief in God to justify his actions. That the everyday Americans in the West Virginia village immediately fall for him is even more damning.

It’s hard not to watch this movie without thinking of Donald Trump, whose professions of Christian faith have never been backed up by anything he’s ever done in his life, but he has nevertheless become the hero of a certain strain of white evangelical Christianity.  The only difference is that when Reverend Powell’s crimes are revealed they form a lynch mob to kill Powell, whereas Trump’s supporters doubled down and attacked the US Capitol.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Tabu (1931)


TitleTabu
Release Date: March 18, 1931
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

F.W. Murnau, famed for directing Nosferatu and Sunrise, made this “Story of the South Seas” on Bora Bora as his last film before dying.  The film purports to tell a legend of the indigenous people of Polynesia. This is a silent film in that it has no dialogue, but sound effects and music are synchronized with the film. Like many of the best silent films it doesn’t have frequent intertitles, but when it does they are presented as letters written by the character, which is a clever and attractive effect.

The opening title card also states that “only native-born South Sea islanders appear in this picture with a few half-castes and Chinese”.  But there are also clearly white actors portraying French colonial officials. The film has the feel of Nanook of the North, a docu-fiction that attempts to recreate traditional ways of Polynesian people, but is filtered through a western gaze (and Nanook director Robert J. Flaherty, was in fact co-writer of the film with Murnau).

The story regards a young couple, a Boy (Matahi) and a girl named Reri (Anne Chevalier) whose romance is interrupted by the arrival of The Old Warrior (Hitu). Reri is selected by her royal bloodline to be a maiden scared to the gods, and Hitu declares it tabu for men to form a relationship with her.  Matahi and Reri flee to another island under French colonial control where Matahi becomes a successful pearl diver, but they continue to suffer ill-fate they attribute to the tabu.

The movie is well-filmed and feels unique and sympathetic for a Hollywood production of the era, but nevertheless I think there’s a lack of cultural competence in its production.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Dead (1987)


TitleThe Dead
Release Date: 18 December 1987
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Vestron Pictures | Zenith Entertainment | Liffey Films | Channel 4 Television Corporation | Delta Film
Summary/Review:

The Dead is an adaptation of the last and longest story in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners. It depicts a dinner party hosted by two elderly sisters and their niece for their annual celebration of Epiphany.  Guests dance, perform recitations, sing, play piano, and enjoy a feast.  Topics of conversation touch upon Irish nationalism, opera, morality, and religion.  There’s a general underlying social awkwardness to the proceedings that I find very relatable and wonder if it’s an innate part of my Irish ancestry.

The main point of view character is a middle-aged academic, Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), who is the target of gentle teasing, responsible for making the drunken Freddy (Donal Donnelly, who steals every scene he’s in) appear respectable, carves the goose, and provides a toast after dinner. The most powerful scenes in the film come at the end when Gabriel and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) return to their hotel. Gretta reveals a tragic memory that was stirred up by the evening’s events, and Gabriel has an epiphany about their marriage.

I read Dubliners a couple of times in college (once on my own and once for a course), and previously watched the film in the classroom.  It is the last film that John Huston directed before his death, and he was in severely poor health during its production. It’s beautifully filmed, especially the final shots of snow falling over Ireland, and has a great sense of authenticity in the early 20th-century setting and the actors’ performances.  It even has a very young-looking Colm Meaney in a pre-Star Trek appearance.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Freaks


Title: Freaks
Release Date: February 12, 1932
Director: Tod Browning
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Freaks is a movie that straddles a line between an exploitation movie and a film that provides a compassionate depiction of people with disabilities and little people. That the movie was promoted as “horror” makes it lean towards exploitation since there is no horror in this film beyond what viewers bring with themselves when they see people with atypical bodies as monsters.  I think more accurately this movie is a slice-of-life drama set among the performers of a traveling circus, that’s built around a love triangle, that eventually becomes a revenge story.

I like the slice-of-life parts best where we see people with dwarfism, conjoined twin sisters (Daisy and Violet Hilton), a man with microcephaly (Schlitzie) as well as the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and the sea lion trainer Venus (Leila Hyams) go about their day. Much of the cast were actual circus performers. The main plot involves the trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) wooing the little person Hans (Harry Earles), breaking the heart of his betrothed, Frieda (Daisy Earles).  Cleopatra is really scheming because she knows that Hans has inherited great wealth. The final part of the film depicts the family of “freaks” teaming up to avenge Hans when Cleopatra tries to kill him for his money.  This could be seen as the scary party of the movie, but in reality, Cleopatra is the only monster in this film.

This movie was different and better than I expected, but I still felt weird about watching it.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Lola(1961)


TitleLola
Release Date: March 3, 1961
Director: Jacques Demy
Production Company: Rome Paris Films
Summary/Review:

Lola is a well-crafted film that tells the intertwining stories of several people over a few days in the port city of Nantes. The titular Lola (Anouk Aimee) is a cabaret dancer with a young son hoping for the return of her one true love, the boy’s father. She has a casual relationship with an American sailor, Frankie (Alan Scott), but does not return his affections. She also becomes reacquainted with Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a childhood friend she hasn’t seen “since the War.” Roland also declares his love for Lola.

Roland is also a point-of-view character, and is a moody slacker who can’t hold a job. At the same time he meets up with Lola, he is offered a sketchy job by a barber who wants him to deliver a briefcase to Johannesburg.  Add into the mix Cécile (Annie Dupéroux), an outgoing girl celebrating her 14th birthday, who makes the acquaintance of both Roland and Frankie.

The intertwining of the stories and characters is admirably done and the characters are all well-acted. The movie feels like a musical production without the music. On the downside, Roland is yet another example of the narcissistic and toxic men who seem to be the protagonists of every French New Wave film.  There’s also a certain creepiness to a grown man and a teenage girl having a seemingly platonic outing  to an amusement park but the way it’s filmed frames it as a romance.

Lola is a movie that was clearly something new when it was created, but nevertheless feels old fashioned.  I enjoyed it but I didn’t love it.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Reviews: Sansho the Bailiff (1954)


Title: Sansho the Bailiff
Release Date:  March 31, 1954
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Production Company: Daiei Film
Summary/Review:

In the 11th-century, a virtuous governor is banished by the feudal lord because he has been too kind and generous to the ordinary people.  His wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and children, Zushiō and Anju, are sent to live with her brother, but along the journey they are captured. Tamaki is sold into prostitution while the children are sent to a manorial estate where they work as slaves under the brutal Sanshō (Eitarō Shindō).

A decade passes and Anju (Kyōko Kagawa) and Zushiō (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) plot their escape.  What follows is a grim and tragic story of suffering, suicide, revenge, loss, and grief.  The film is punctuated just often enough by moments of humanity that keep one from falling into despair.  But this is a definitely a movie that is an indictment of humankind.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Reviews: To Be or Not To Be (1942)


Title: To Be or Not To Be
Release Date: February 19, 1942
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Production Company: Romaine Film Corp
Summary/Review:

On the eve of a Presidential inauguration that is under the shadow of a white supremacist insurrection us two weeks ago, it seems unfortunate that a movie that makes light of Nazis would come up next on my list. Except, once I started watching this movie I found it so compelling I let my misapprehensions go. Set in 1939, the movie depicts a theatre company in Warsaw who support the Underground by using disguises and get themselves in and out of trouble. Despite being a very funny comedy this film makes the threat of the Nazis all the more menacing.

In this earlier version Jack Benny and Carole Lombard portray the married stars of a Warsaw theatre company named Josef and Maria Tura.  A very young Robert Stack (but his distinguishing voice is recognizable) plays the Polish airman Lt. Stanislav Sobinski who inadvertently gets them caught up in a Gestapo plot. Benny is absolutely hilarious as the arrogant and hammy actor playing a part in everything he does.  Lombard, in her last role before dying in a plane crash, is equally majestic as the quick-witted Maria.

I remember seeing at least parts of the 1983 remake with Mel Brooks (and more frequently, the unfortunate “Hitler Rap” music video) as a kid, but didn’t remember much about the movie. I can see why it would appeal to Brooks though as it has some of his dark, satiric humor as well as the willingness to be seen as doing something in “bad taste.”

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Partie de campagne (1936)


Title: Partie de campagne
Release Date: 8 May 1946
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Panthéon Productions
Summary/Review:

After watching several lengthy, epic films in the past few weeks, I was delighted that this movie is only a brisk 40 minutes. Part of the reason for its brevity is that the film was never finished. Director Jean Renoir abandoned filming in 1936 after some weather-related problems and the film was edited together by other parties a decade later, after Renoir had left for the United States.

The story is quite simple. Henriette Dufour (Sylvia Bataille) is a young woman from Paris who goes on a tour of the countryside with her mother (Jane Marken), her father the shopkeeper (André Gabriello), and the shopkeeper’s assistant/Henriette’s fiancé, Anatole (Paul Temps).  When they stop for a picnic, two predatory young men – Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) – divvy up the Henriette and her mother with plans for “hanky panky.”

While Anatole and M. Dufour go fishing, Henri and Rodolphe take Henriette and her mother out in rowboats. Henri stops at an island and makes the moves on Henriette. In the 1930s expectations, Henriette demurs Henri’s advances out of societal roles for women until she final accepts his kisses. In 2021 terms, it is clearly a sexual assault.  Either way, I don’t really feel a great romance between the two or any reason for the conclusion, set years ago, where they meet again and have a melancholy reflection on their one moment together.

The movie is incomplete and it feels incomplete because it doesn’t seem to fill in the details behind the characters’ emotions. Nevertheless it does work as a vignette, capturing fleeting feelings and moments in time. Stylistically it also impressive, especially with the camera work on scenes such as the one where Henriette rides a swing. I’m not convinced that this is one of the greatest movies of all-time but it’s not a huge investment of time if you want to judge for yourself.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Crowd (1928)


Title: The Crowd
Release Date: February 28, 1928
Director: King Vidor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

First thing, a personal note: this is the first movie I’ve ever watched that was released in 1928, which means that I’ve watched at least one movie released every year from 1921 to 2020. One hundred years of film is kind of awe-inspiring.

The Crowd is a melodrama with touches of romance and comedy about John Sims (James Murray), who is born on the Fourth of July in 1900 and believes himself destined for great things. As an adult he moves to New York, works in a large accounting firm, and meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman) on a double date to Coney Island and immediately asks to marry her.

The thing about John is that he gives off huge red flags and is something of a jerk. After their romantic honeymoon, their marriage in a claustrophobic apartment gradually spirals downward as John proves he’s ne’er-do-well who only talks a big game. Near the end of the film John has reached rock bottom and is only redeemed when his young son ( Freddie Burke Frederick) shares his unconditional love for him. That scene will probably be extremely cheezy to most viewers, but as a dad who has been pepped up by the love of my children (it made me weepy).

“The Crowd” is a metaphor throughout the film. John sees himself as apart from the crowd as he’s destined towards greatness, and belittles everyday people trying to make ends meet. Throughout the film there are actual crowds of people that the characters get lost in and sometimes act something like a Greek chorus. By the end of the film though, “the Crowd” has a more positive connotation as a community of ordinary people trying their best, and John seemingly accepting his place in the Crowd is a sign that he is really reforming himself.

This movie has great cinematography with moving camera work similar to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The sets for John’s massive office building are also reminiscent of the futuristic settings of Metropolis. I particularly appreciate the great location shots of 1920s Manhattan and Coney Island. As far as the story goes, I like the realism of the scenes on marriage and parenting where people have bad days, get very cranky with one another, and make up.

I would not consider this movie and all-time great, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in silent movies and film history.

Rating: ***