Classic Movie Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Release Date: December 25, 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan
Production Company: Brentwood Productions | Pakula-Mulligan
Summary/Review:

I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high school, as reading this novel is basically a nationwide requirement of the United States education systems, and immediately fell in love with it.  Then we watched the movie in class and I was disappointed.  At that age, I didn’t like it when movies deviated from the books. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that the best adaptations used the language of cinema to capture the mood and spirit of a book rather than strictly recreating it (which is why Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of that series of movies).  I also remember feeling that the kids in To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t act like real kids but I felt the same about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a child while thinking the kids were actually very realistic when revisiting as an adult.

If you have somehow never read To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a story told from the point of view of a young girl living in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham).  Scout lives with her widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck) and older brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and often plays with a boy named Dill (John Megna) who stays with his aunt in their neighborhood.  In the book, Scout, Jem, and Dill have many adventures and get into mischief.  Scout also begins to get an understanding of the differences of the adults in her lives through encounters with a cantankerous old woman who turns out to have an addiction to morphine, as well as a mysterious recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley (portrayed without words by a very young Robert Duvall).  Atticus is a model of good parenting who attempts to instill compassion in his children, treating them with patience and never talking down to them.

The central plot to the book and even more significant in the leaner movie version is the trial of a Black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who is falsely accused of beating and raping a white teenage girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), by her drunken father Bob Ewell (James Anderson).  Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson in court and demonstrates during the trial that the Ewells’ accusations can’t possibly be true.  But convincing an all-white jury in the Jim Crow South to accept the word of a Black man over white people is the impossible challenge.  In the most famous scene of this movie, Atticus delivers a nine-minute summation to the jury where he explicates his belief in the American justice system that they will find Tom Robinson innocent.

I found that this is a very well-made movie, yet it still feels like something of an appendix to an even better and more complex novel.  Gregory Peck’s performance is excellent, but it’s almost too good and having an actor of his stature portray Atticus Finch feeds into legitimate criticisms that Atticus is a “white savior” character.  I did feel legitimately moved though by the scene where the Black spectators in the courtroom balcony stand to honor Atticus and Reverend Sykes (William “Bill” Walker) says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” A scene just before that where Dill is sleeping on Reverend Sykes shoulder is sweet and intimate especially considering the time and place.

As to the acting of the children, I was impressed with Phillip Alford’s performance as Jem.  His facial expressions and gestures say a lot as the older child who understands the significance of what is happening.  Mary Badham can be a bit too precious as Scout, especially in the scene when she talks down the lynch mob.  But she is absolutely perfect in her delivery of my favorite line of all, “Hey, Boo.”

I guess I have mixed feelings on To Kill a Mockingbird as a movie because I can never see it as standing apart from the book.  But it’s a great book, so it can’t help to be a good movie as well.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Graduate (1967)


Title: The Graduate
Release Date: December 21, 1967
Director: Mike Nichols
Production Company: Lawrence Turman Productions
Summary/Review:

I first watched The Graduate some time in the mid-90s because, along with Easy Rider, it is said to be an emblematic of the Baby Boomer generation.  Watching it then, I felt that Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) seemed more representative of my own generation, at a time when we were being called “The Slacker Generation.”  Watching it now, though, I think there is a feeling of directionless many people experience in their 20s that transcends generations.  My other impression of the movie was that it wasn’t very funny and I didn’t like it.

Watching it now, I realize the problem I had with The Graduate is that it makes me deeply uncomfortable, which is something that a good movie can do.  I wrote in my review of M*A*S*H that there were a lot of positives of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s, but sometimes there was a push to be transgressive which crossed the line from health to unhealthy sexual expression.  The seduction of Benjamin by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is extremely creepy, almost predatory.  Later in the film, Benjamin becomes a creepy stalker in his pursuit of Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross).  I’m never convinced that Benjamin actually loves Elaine, he’s just looking for a way to escape the rut he’s captured in, and I think the film actually supports this interpretation.  As for Elaine, watching her respond positively to Benjamin is like watching a camp counselor in a slasher film enter the creepy house where I want to shout at the screen “NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?”

The Graduate is an extremely well-made film.  I particularly like the the montage of Benjamin schlubbing around his house intercut with scenes of his assignations with Mrs. Robinson.  The acting is all around terrific, and Anne Bancroft’s performance in the scene where Benjamin presses Mrs. Robinson about her past is magnificent.  Simon & Garfunkel’s music for the film, while repetitive (although not as repetitive as Midnight Cowboy), is perfectly synched to the movie, and I especially like the part where Simon’s guitar strumming peters out when Benjamin’s car runs out of gas.  The final sequence of the movie is ludicrously unbelievable, but it’s still very funny (and was brilliantly spoofed in Wayne’s World II). Something I didn’t notice or didn’t remember from my previous viewing is that when Benjamin and Elaine get on the bus their smiles and laughter slowly turn to looks of confusion, as if they’re thinking “What now?” I never thought there was a happy future for Benjamin and Elaine and their expressions in the final shot confirm it.

Want to know something weird?  When filming this movie, Anne Bancroft was only 36 years old, joining Vivien Leigh and Gloria Swanson among actresses playing characters who are treated as older than themselves.  Granted, Mrs. Robinson had a teenage pregnancy, so it’s entirely possible that she have a child in college at Bancroft’s age.  But here’s something weirder: Katharine Ross is less than 9 years younger than Bancroft!  Weirder still?  Hoffman is only SIX YEARS younger than Bancroft.  The leads in this intergenerational comedy were all born in the same decade!

So, I think I like The Graduate a lot more than I did on my previous viewing, but I don’t love it.  I guess I’ll check in again in another 25 years, and who knows!

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Contempt (1963)


Title: Le Mépris
Release Date: 29 October 1963
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Company: Rome Paris Films | Les Films Concordia | Compagnia Cinematografica Champion
Summary/Review:

Contempt is a movie about making a movie.  In this case, German director Fritz Lang plays himself directing an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey on location in Italy. Sleazy American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) thinks that Lang’s vision for the film is too artistic and wants to create a blockbuster instead, so he brings in French playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to rework the script.  Javal’s wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) accompanies him to the film shoot.  Early on it is established that they both suffer from a lack of confidence, Paul in his writing, and Camille of whether she is worthy of love.

Things are sent into motion when Paul has Camille ride with the lecherous Prokosch when going to his house for lunch, and then doesn’t show up himself until 30 minutes later.  Camille fears that Paul is offering her to Prokosch as a beautiful young woman in order to advance his career.  When Paul later sides with Prokosch over Lang on changes to the film, she is further disgusted with his lack of integrity.  The better part of the film is the argument between Camille and Paul, first in their unfinished apartment and later on the cliffs at Capri.

This movie feels like it’s the type of movie that American sketch comedy shows spoof when they do a sketch about European films.  Beautiful people in various states of undress argue past one another, shouting they’re no longer in love, while repressing why they feel that way.  For some reason, Bardot is completely naked for a good portion of the film with the camera lovingly panning over her bare bottom.  Bardot certainly has a lovely bum, but I’m not sure how presenting it to the audience repeatedly adds to the film’s plot.  This movie is supposed to be Goddard thumbing his nose at mainstream filmmaking, but it feels to me like it’s just a poorly made melodrama.  The constantly swelling music is inappropriate to the mood and Bardot and Piccoli seem to be acting wooden deliberately

I don’t know, I guess this is one of those movie I’m just not going to “get.”

Rating: **1/2

 

Classic Movie Review: Casque D’or (1952)


Title: Casque D’or
Release Date: 16 April 1952
Director: Jacques Becker
Production Company: Robert et Raymond Hakim | Speva Films | Paris-Film Production
Summary/Review:

Casque D’or refers to the helmet of golden hair on the head of Marie (Simone Signoret), the center of a love triangle between the ex-con carpenter Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani) and the mob boss Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin).  The Belle Epoque story feels like a gentile predecessor to West Side Story. More significantly it is a predecessor to the French New Wave movement which is probably why it made it on the Cahiers du Cinéma list.  The film is well-produced and well-acted, but I found it a bit dull. The famed final scene takes on the senseless violence of capital punishment.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)


Title: Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Release Date: May 12, 1928
Director: Charles Reisner
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

Buster Keaton stars as William Canfield, Jr., a young man who finishes college in Boston and goes to join his father (Ernest Torrence), a riverboat captain in the South nicknamed “Steamboat Bill.”  Canfield, Sr. is caught in a rivalry with another riverboat captain,  John James King (Tom McGuire) with a newer, more luxurious boat.  He hasn’t seen his son since he was a baby and is disappointed that Canfield, Jr. is small and unaccustomed to manual labor.  To make matters worse, Canfield, Jr. is in love with a young woman, Kitty (Marion Byron) who is also visiting her father, who turns out to be none other than King.  Hijinks ensue.

Compared to other Keaton films I watched, this one took a long time to get going.  It really doesn’t have much in the way of stunts or even funny gags for the most part.  The end of the film involves a big storm in the town where buildings collapse like matchsticks.  This includes one of Keaton’s most famous stunts where the facade of a house falls toward him, but he survives by being right in the path of an open window.  All of this comes a little bit too late though, so Steamboat Bill, Jr. fails to be a comedy classic.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Ace in the Hole (1951)


Title: Ace in the Hole
Release Date: June 14, 1951
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), an arrogant and cynical reporter who has lost jobs at various big city newspapers, bullies his way into a job at an Albuquerque newspaper.  His plan is to get “one big story” to launch him back into the big time.  A year later, while on assignment, he stops for gas at a desert trading post and learns that the owner is trapped in a cave where he was looking for Native American artifacts.  Tatum enters the cave to befriend and photograph the trapped Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict).  Outside the cave, Tatum takes control of the rescue operation manipulating everyone to maximize his “human interest” story.

Ace in the Hole is a not-at-all subtle satire of sensational news media and the general public who laps it up.  It’s acidly funny and horrifying at the same time.  Douglas puts in a particularly good performance shifting from self-aggrandizing and commanding to playing kind and sympathetic when talking with Leo. Jan Sterling plays Leo’s wife Loraine who wants nothing more than to leave Leo and New Mexico for good, but uses the literal carnival that grows around the trading  post to profit.  Ray Teal is the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer who allows Tatum exclusive access to Leo in return for positive news coverage for his re-election campaign.  Tatum also acts as kind of a negative mentor for Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), the young and idealistic newspaper photographer who gets sucked into Tatum’s plot.

Like all Billy Wilder films, Ace in the Hole is magnificently scripted with sparkling dialogue.  It is also beautifully filmed and tightly edited, so there’s a lot of story in a short movie.  Since I started investing a lot of time into watching classic film that past couple of years, I’ve been impressed by Wilder’s films, so I’m glad to add another one, even if Ace in the Hole isn’t quite as magnificent as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot,  or The Apartment.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)


Title: Letter from an Unknown Woman
Release Date: April 28, 1948
Director: Max Ophüls
Production Company: Rampart Productions
Summary/Review:

Set in fin de siècle Vienna, this film begins with a concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), receiving a letter from a unknown woman (clever, eh?).  Oh, but he should know here because she is Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) who has loved him for years.  Lisa’s voice reads the letter which doubles as the film’s narration going back to when she was a teenager and Stefan moved into a neighboring apartment.  She falls for his music and then helplessly in love with him and keeps that flame going even when her mother remarries and they move to Linz.

Years later, Lisa finally meets Stefan and they have a romantic night that results in her pregnancy.  Stefan disappears and Lisa eventually marries another man who agrees to raise her son.  When Lisa and Stefan finally meet again, he doesn’t remember her at all.  Oh, it is all so tragic.

There are things I like about this movie.  It’s beautiful filmed with the flowing camera movement that Max Ophüls would go on to use so well in Madame de…  The set design is also excellent. I really like the Vienna apartments that are all wound together and the use of snow on the ground is impressive. And I always like Fontaine as she is excellent at playing characters who are uncertain and anxious, yet determined (and also rather foolish in their selection of romantic interests).  But overall this movie is heavily melodramatic and rather boring.  I guess this story of unrequited love is just not for me.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


Title: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Release Date: April 3, 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a kid, excited to see a science fiction classic.  I was not at all prepared to watch a slow-moving film with limited dialogue that touched upon themes of evolution and existentialism.  It left me feeling a way I couldn’t describe with words, somewhere between disturbed and confused.  Upon repeated viewings I was still confounded.

It’s been decades since the last time I watched 2001, yet it’s a movie I still think about a lot. So I was glad to revisit it as an adult with an appreciation for the the film’s cinematic innovations.  I am also in a place where I’m much more comfortable with watching something and not having to know what it “means.” The film is impressive from the very beginning with the shot of the earth from the moon, released to cinemas before astronauts got the same view for the first time on Apollo 8 later the same year. The effects used to create weightlessness are also terrific and I particularly like the scene in the airlock.

The opening segment, “The Dawn of Man,” which particularly bored me as a child went by quicker than I remembered.  It still feels like dioramas in the natural history museum have come to life, particularly since Kubrick shot it against backdrops rather than on location in Africa.  The “Star Gate” segment, however, goes on for far longer than I remembered.  Did hippies really even need to take hallucinogens before watching this?

The core of the movie is aboard the spacecraft Discovery One on a mission to Jupiter with astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).  They grow increasingly mistrustful of the intelligent computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) which leads to horror and tragedy.  The scene where Dave disconnects HAL’s circuits leading to HAL’s “death” is one of the most heartbreaking in film history even though it’s for a murderous computer.

In summation, 2001 is still a slow and “boring” film, but in a good way.  It’s predictions of the future seem way off since humans have not left low-earth orbit since 1972.  On the other hand, the corporate branding we see on everything seems spot on even if Pan-Am, Bell Telephone, and Howard Johnson’s restaurants didn’t make it to 2001.  The movie is stunning visually, and it will make you think about important topics even if you can never figure out the right answers.  This is definitely a movie I’d like to see on a big screen when I get the opportunity.

Rating: *****

 

Classic Movie Review: Some Came Running (1958)


Title: Some Came Running
Release Date: December 18, 1958
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Some Came Running is the first movie I’ve watched starring Frank Sinatra (not including cameos in films like Around the World in 80 Days). It’s directed by Vincente Minnelli, who is most famous for classic musicals and romances like Meet Me in St. Louis.  Despite starring one of the great vocalists of all time, Some Came Running is a straight-up drama, or melodrama as is the case.

Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, a man who has published novel but now struggles to write. He left his hometown in Indiana 16 years earlier bouncing around among odd jobs and most recently serving in the army.  As the film begins, he returns to his hometown, accompanied by Ginny (Shirley MacLaine) whom he drunkenly invited to join him in Chicago and then promptly forgot about. His homecoming is not joyous as he has a strained relationship with his brother and sister-and-law (Arthur Kennedy and Leora Dana).  They are social climbers and since Dave is a noted author they introduce him to a prominent local professor and his schoolteacher daughter, Gwen (Martha Hyer).

Dave immediately falls in love in Gwen, but she has little interest in him beyond his writing.  She’s particularly put off by his drinking and association with the gambler Bama (Dean Martin).  Dave starts off as a cynical and self-absorbed character but gradually opens up a kinder side. He shows kindness to Ginny, who falls as helplessly in love with him as he has fallen for Gwen. He also takes his niece Dawn (Betty Lou Keim) under his wing, perhaps feeling a kinship with her because she has a strained relationship with her parents.

I wanted to like this movie more than I did.  The acting is great, particularly Sinatra, MacLaine, and Martin, but the plot is just too melodramatic. I’m always a tough sell on the “love at first sight” trope in movies and this one failed the “show don’t tell” test.  The story though does seem to have the seeds of something that could be remade as a quality movie today.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Madame de… (1953)


Title: Madame de…
Release Date: September 16, 1953
Director: Max Ophüls
Production Company: Franco London Films | Indusfilms | Rizzoli Film
Summary/Review:

French aristocrat Louise (Danielle Darrieux) has a debt and sells a pair of earrings that were a wedding gift from her husband André (Charles Boyer) to pay it.  The earrings become a device around which the narrative revolves as they are sold and resold and take on new meanings to the characters with each transfer.

The main plot involves an Italian baron, Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), and Louise falling in love (a big no-no in the aristocratic code where mistresses are acceptable, but love is forbidden).  There’s a brilliant scene showing their relationship blossoming over a series of nights dancing, their clothing changing as they move behind pillars, but the dance moving smoothly on.  Louise initially seems to be a careless and spoiled, and the matters of aristocrats mean little to me, but Ophüls tells their story in a way that can’t fail to elicit empathy.

I’m not sure exactly when the movie is set, but it appears to be the early 20th century. André and Fabrizio are both in the military of their respective nations and a recurring theme of the film is the formation of alliances among European nations.  I may be stretching my interpretation a bit, but I think this movie is not just a story of the dissolution of a marriage that leads to tragedy, but also a metaphor for Europe and all the petty slights that lead to the carnage of World War I.

Rating: ***1/2