Classic Movie Review: Wild Strawberries (1957)


Title: Wild Strawberries
Release Date: December 26, 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Summary/Review:

The Nordic countries are generally ranked among the happiest nations on Earth, but the movies are depressing AF.  Well, this is actually only the second Ingmar Bergman film I’ve watched (I saw The Seventh Seal long ago), so maybe this is a rush to judgement.

Wild Strawberries is about the elderly and misanthropic physician Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) taking a journey to receive an honorary medal for 50 years of service.  Accompanying him on the road trip is his daughter-in-law Marianne Borg (Ingrid Thulin) who is estranged from her husband and makes it clear early on that she doesn’t like Isak much.  Along the journey they pick up three young hitchhikers, two men and a woman named Sara (Bibi Andersson), whose exuberance is a contrast to Isak and Marianne and others they encounter on their journey.  These include a vitriolic married couple who crash their car and Isak’s cold and unsentimental mother (Naima Wifstrand).

The journey is interspersed with Isak’s dreams and flashbacks to his youth. He’s particularly nostalgic for his childhood sweetheart Sara (also played by  Bibi Andersson), who ended up marrying his brother.  Both the journey and the dreams and visions help Isak confront what he’s lost in his past, his present loneliness, and mortality.  He also forms a bond with Marianne and the hitchhiker Sara. For all the grim realism of the film, it surprisingly has a happy ending. The movie is well-filmed and well-acted and worth a rewatch for a deeper analysis.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)


Title: Singin’ in the Rain
Release Date: April 11, 1952
Director: Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Following-up on Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the Rain continues the early-50s trend of Hollywood grappling with its own history.  Set in the late 1920s, the movie is a comedy musical based on the problems faced by the transition from silent movies to talkies.  Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, an experienced vaudeville performer who becomes one of the top leading men of 1920s silents, paired with the vapid Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen).  The Hollywood publicity machine has convinced most people, including Lina, that their romance extends into real life as well.

On the night of a movie premier, Don escapes Lina and fawning fans and meets Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who expresses her disfavor for movies compared with theatre. Although it’s soon revealed that Kathy’s theatrical experience is as a chorus girl and that she is fan of Don’s movies, Don is attracted to Kathy’s independent mind (it doesn’t hurt that Debbie Reynolds is cute as a button too).

Don and Lina are set to make their first talkie, but their silent movie formula of success doesn’t translate to talkies, especially because Lina’s New York accent is inappropriate to historical romances.  To avoid becoming a laughingstock, Don works on a plan to make the movie into a musical with Kathy and his long-time friend and partner, Cosmo (Donald O’Connor).  Kathy will secretly overdub Lina’s voice.

The musical contains several notable song and dance numbers including Kelly’s famed performance of the title song, O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and the trio’s “Good Morning.”  The biggest number of all is “Broadway Melody” which has nothing to do with the rest of the movie nor does it make much sense in the movie they’re filming, but it is quite the spectacle, so who cares. If I have one criticism of this movie is that the jokes at the expense of Lina are too many and too harsh.  But, Jean Hagen was (deservedly) nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress while none of the other cast received nominations, so I guess she got the last laugh.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: High Noon (1952)


Title: High Noon
Release Date: July 24, 1952
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Production Company: Stanley Kramer Productions
Summary/Review:

High Noon features a spectacular opening with Tex Ritter’s haunting rendition of the title song playing over the credits followed by scenes of a trio of bad lads riding into town to the shock of the townspeople.  It’s a collection of iconic Western tropes, and yet, as we shall see, this movie is unconventional for the genre. At the same time the outlaws arrive, Hadleyville’s Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is marrying Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly, in her first major role) and then turning in his badge as they plan to move to another town and run a store.

Before they can begin their honeymoon, Will is informed that a notoriously violent criminal he’d captured, Frank Miller (Ian Macdonald), has been released from prison and will be arriving on the noon train, intent on revenge. Will returns for his badge and prepares to protect the town from Miller and his cohort. His efforts to raise up a posse are filmed in real time, with frequent glimpses of clocks to remind the audience of the time left.

Will finds it difficult to get any support.  Amy, a Quaker pacifist, wants no part of the gun battle and prepares to leave him on the same train that Miller is arriving on.  The Deputy Marshall, Harvey Pell (a very young Lloyd Bridges), still sore about not being promoted to replace Will, turns in his badge.  The shopkeeper Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado) – Will’s former lover and Harvey’s current lover – also makes plans to leave town.  The men at the saloon liked it better when Miller was running things and refuse to help, while the men at the church think they’ll be safe if Will just leaves town. Ultimately, Will is left to defend the town alone and this is depicted with a legendary overhead shot of the empty streets as Miller and his men arrive.

As noted earlier, this is not your typical Western.  The gunfight at the conclusion of the film feels obligatory. The rest of the movie has exposed the dark side of human nature in the townspeople that makes one question whether they’re even worth defending.  Then there is a fantastic twist of who does come to Will’s aid in his moment of need.

The movie was created in part as a metaphor for the blacklist in Hollywood of actors and filmmakers accused of Communist sympathies. I don’t think that’s readily apparent 70 years later just from watching the film, but it made the movie controversial at the time.  It’s a powerful character study and feature terrific acting across the board.  Gary Cooper in particular stands out.  Cooper was only 50 years old when the movie was made but he looks much older due to the deeply-etched lines in his face and general weariness. (An aside: it’s been a long time since I’ve watched Pride of the Yankees but I learned he was 41 when it filmed, which is 4 years older than Lou Gehrig at the time of his death).

High Noon is a gripping drama and a genre-redefining Western that I’m glad I had the time to watch it.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)


Title: Sunset Boulevard
Release Date: August 10, 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Since I’ve started my Classic Films project, I’ve watched the best movies from three decades of early Hollywood. The first movie I watched from the 1950s finds Hollywood reflecting on its own history and the dark underbelly of the film industry.  Joe Gillis (Williams Holden) is a struggling screen writer who escapes the repossession men trying to take his car by parking it in the garage of a seemingly abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

Joe discovers that the house is in fact inhabited by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her obsequious butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) living in an elegant decrepitude. Appropriately, Swanson was a silent film star in real life and von Stroheim was an actor and director.  They worked together on Queen Kelly in the late 1920s, a film not released in the United States, but clips of it are seen in Sunset Boulevard as Norma Desmond’s work.

Norma is working on a script for her “return” to Hollywood greatness and hires Joe on the spot to polish the script.  Her offer includes housing in the mansion and Joe accepts what appears to be a plum job to help pay off his debts.  Over time, Norma becomes more controlling of Joe’s life and falling in love with him. Joe feels trapped in the situation as Norma loses her mental faculties.

Gloria Swanson puts in a wonderful over-the-top performance as someone who is always Acting! decades after her career faded away.  Swanson was only 50 years old when this movie was made so it’s ridiculous that she’s constantly referred to as aged, but then again, that is an accurate depiction of Hollywood’s attitude towards older women. Holden is a good straight man for all the weirdness of Swanson and von Stroheim.  Nancy Olson has a great part as a script reader, Betty, who works on writing a script with Joe when he slips away from Norma’s mansion, and is also his love interest.  Cecil B. DeMille plays himself in a scene where Norma returns to the Paramount lot where he treats her with great respect while evading any promises about actually producing her horrible script.

The movie is filmed with the light and shadows of film noir, which is effective even as the movie teeters on the border of comedy and tragedy.  There’s a particularly effective shot of Joe’s body floating in a pool, shot from below, and Wilder’s direction is top notch.  This movie is worthy of its reputation as one of the all-time greats.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Twelve O’Clock High (1949)


Title: Twelve O’Clock High
Release Date: December 21, 1949
Director: Henry King
Production Company: Twentieth Century Fox
Summary/Review:

In the early days of American involvement in WWII, the 918th Bomb Group gets a reputation as a “tough luck” group due to heavy loses and low morale. Group commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is determined to be too sympathetic to his men and relieved of command. Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over as group commander and implements strict discipline and attempts to get the group a victory to improve confidence. This includes doing things like putting all the flight crew deemed “incompetent” into a bomber named The Leper Colony.

Savage’s ways seem harsh, but on the other hand his insistence on keeping to the plan reduces losses for the group. Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) is a WWI vet and civilian lawyer who becomes an early ally to Savage’s system (in fact, the film is framed by Stovall’s post-war reminiscences of the war). It proves to be an interesting philosophical dilemma at the heart of this gritty war drama.

Unlike earlier WWII movies that had an optimistic, propaganda purpose, Twelve O’Clock High depicts the true psychological and physical toll on the flight crews. With the people-focused approach, much of the film is set on the base. Only late in the film do we see a sortie which features actual film from WWII air battles expertly intercut with the cast of the movie.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Third Man (1949)


Title: The Third Man
Release Date: September 1, 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Production Company: London Films
Summary/Review:

The Third Man is a thriller set in post-World War II Vienna with the city divided in quadrants among the allies and a thriving criminal underground centered on the black market.  American Western novel author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives after being promised work by an his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But upon his arrival, Martins discovers that Lime is being buried after being killed in a car crash.

Angered that British Royal Military Police Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) suggests that Lime was a criminal, Martins investigates Lime’s death and uncovers evidence that it wasn’t accidental.  He becomes acquainted with Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime’s girlfriend, who was born in Czechoslovakia, but with Lime’s help got a forged Austrian passport to avoid repatriation by the Soviets.

The more Martins investigates, the more he discovers things about the dark side of human nature. The film works as a metaphor for naive, can-do Americans compared with the more world-weary and resigned Europeans. And despite the noir aspects of the film, it also has many moments of humor. The soundtrack is cheerful music played on a zither by Anton Karas  which serves as a wonderful contrast to the shadows and light of the film.

The story is gripping but the cinematography is pure art.  Every shot is perfectly composed against the rubble of bombed-out Vienna, a worn out amusement park, and ultimately the city’s extensive sewers.  The denouement in the sewers is a clinic in light, shadow, and sound in a movie. This is a spectacular movie and I expect will reward repeated viewing.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)


Title: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Release Date: June 13, 1949
Director: Robert Hamer
Production Company: Ealing Studios
Summary/Review:

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dry and satirical British comedy from Ealing Studios, among the earliest of a string of “Ealing Comedies” that include classics like The Ladykillers and often starred Alec Guinness. Set around 1900, the story focuses on Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) whose mother (Audrey Fildes) was disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying his father (also Price), an Italian singer. In revenge for their ill-treatment of his mother, Louis decides to murder every member of the D’Ascoyne family who is ahead of him in inheriting the title of Duke of Chalfont.

The so-absurd-it’s-wonderful twist is that Alec Guinness plays all the members of the D’Ascoyne family, 9 characters in all, of different ages and genders.  The amazing thing is that Guinness’ chameleon-like talent allows him to portray all these different characters without much in the way of make-up or costuming.

In addition to Guinness, the cast includes Joan Greenwood as Sibella, Louis’ childhood friend who turns down his marriage proposal due to his initial poor prospects, but later becomes his mistress.  Valerie Hobson portrays Edith, the widow of one of Louis’ murder victims whom he marries in order to have a properly elite bride.  There are a lot of good comical twists to the story, especially a stunner at the finale. And keeping with British tradition, there’s also a lot of variety and creativity in how the murders are carried out.

These days, the British aristocracy is an open target for mockery, but I wonder if in 1949 there was still some level of deference that would’ve made this movie more shocking. Deference to aristocracy is certainly a target for satire right at the start when a comical hangman seeks to  learn how to properly address his illustrious victim.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)


Title: The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Release Date: January 6, 1948
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros. – First National
Summary/Review:

This movie is technically a Western but it also functions as a psychological drama and a study of masculinity.  Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are a pair of American drifters, working odd jobs and panhandling on the streets of Tampico, Mexico.  They meet an old man, Howard (Walter Huston), who tells them of the possibilities (and dangers) of prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.

The trio put together an expedition and face the physical trials of hiking into the remote mountains and extracting the gold, as well as outside threats from bandits and another American, Cody (Bruce Bennett), who tries to elbow his way into joining their team.  But the greatest threat is greed, which most strongly affects Dobbs who goes mad with the paranoia that the others are after his gold. Dobbs is clearly a deeply-flawed character from the start despite being the main protagonist, and Bogart accurately stated “I play the worst shit you ever saw!”

The three leads are all excellent in their roles.  Bogart carries off the performance of a man constantly teetering on the brink of madness well. Huston does a great job as the goofy, old prospector but also makes it clear that Howard is also acting, quietly manipulating the behavior of his companions.  Holt plays more of the straight man and his acting may be overlooked, but he provides an important balance to Bogart and Huston. He plays a character clearly with a moral compass, and yet he’s still willing to go along with the plan to assassinate Cody.  I’d be interested in seeing Holt’s other movies (apparently he starred almost exclusively in Westerns).

The movie feels very modern to me.  I’m surprised (and pleased) that it hasn’t been remade recently by someone like the Cohen Brothers, but it definitely would not feel dated. The only part of the movie that doesn’t really work is a subplot where Howard helps a community of indios save the life of a child and then is seen reclining in a hammock being fanned by young women. It smacks of colonialist fantasy.

Otherwise though, the movie is gripping as it both lays out an adventure and deconstructs masculinity.  The movie is full of iconic moments that feel familiar from their parodies in movies like Blazing Saddles and City Slickers. I actually cheered when it got to this part with Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat after hearing this line (mis)quoted all these years:

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (1946)


Title: La Belle et la Bêt)
Release Date: October 29, 1946
Director: Jean Cocteau
Production Company: DisCina
Summary/Review:

In post-war France, escapist fantasy was the goal in this adaptation of the 1757 story Beauty and the Beast. Belle (Josette Day) works hard to support her widower father (Marcel André) as he falls into debt. She receives only insult from her vain sisters (Mila Parély, Nane Germon) and no support from her ne’er-do-well brother (Michel Auclair).  Her brother’s friend Avenant (Jean Marais) proposes marriage, but Belle is devoted to staying with her father.

While traveling in hopes of settling his debts, Belle’s father stumbles upon a mysterious castle and when he plucks a rose for Belle, he is condemned to death by The Beast (also Jean Marais).  Belle takes her father’s place as a prisoner in Beast’s castle and slowly begins to appreciate him. The castle is super eerie with human arms holding the candelabras and the eyes of the statuary moving. Belle and the Beast appear to move as if choreographed in a dance, and in once scene Belle glides down a corridor past blowing curtains (a scene that must’ve inspired 1000 music videos).  The design of the Beast’s castle and costume were very obviously inspirational to the animators of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

The tone of this adaptation is very eerie, party psychological horror, part avant-guard art piece. And the clear sexual undertones of the movie are very unsettling.  It’s worth a watch for a well-directed and artistic take on a familiar tale.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Notorious (1946)


Title: Notorious
Release Date: September 6, 1946
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

I never knew how much I needed to see a drunk Ingrid Berman angrily cuss out a cop, but this movie satiates that desire.  And that’s only the prologue!

Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, an American socialite whose father is convicted as a Nazi spy.  Federal agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits her to help infiltrate a group of fugitive Nazis operating out of Rio de Janeiro.  Much like The Stranger, the issue of Nazis continuing to operate was clearly a concern in the immediate aftermath of WWII, but I’m still impressed that entire films of fictional Nazi fugitives were written and produced so soon after the war. One odd thing about this movie is that while it primarily takes place in Brazil, I don’t think we see a single Brazilian character.

En route to Brazil and as they establish themselves in Rio, Huberman and Devlin fall in love.  This leads to a racy-for-1946 scene where the couple kiss for over two minutes.  Of course, considering that most human beings would like to kiss Bergman and/or Grant, this is also wish fulfillment for the audience.  Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the romance leads a character to act unprofessionally, but this time it’s the male character Devlin, whose jealousy will ultimately put Huberman’s life in peril.

Huberman is tasked with getting acquainted with her father’s friend Alex Sebastian (Hollywood supervillain Claude Raines), a financier of the German war engine, and find out who he’s associating with and what the Nazis are plotting.  The movie is a slow burn as secrets are revealed one by one and the steps that Huberman takes to gain access further strain her relationship with Devlin.  It all leads to a satisfying denouement.

Rating: ****