Classic Movie Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)


Title: 12 Angry Men
Release Date: April 10, 1957
Director: Sidney Lumet
Production Company: Orion-Nova Productions
Summary/Review:

This is another movie I remember watching in high school, having read the play in English class.

Set almost entirely in the jury room of a New York City courthouse, 12 Angry Men is a compelling drama about the deliberations on a murder case.  Henry Fonda is the only big-name star in the movie, playing Juror #8, the only juror who feels that there may be reasonable doubt about whether the defendant, and 18 year old Latin American boy, actually murdered his father.  But there are excellent performances all around, including Lee J. Cobb as the angry man who is tough on crime, Jack Klugman as a man who grew up in similar conditions to the defendant, Jack Warden as the wiseass who is apathetic about the case, and George Voskovec as a naturalized American citizen who has a deep faith in democracy.

The movie is well-filmed, taking advantage of the confined space to build a feeling of claustrophobia.  There is also a slow transition of shots from above to close-up shots of characters’ faces over the course of the film. Keeping the camera on a character who is listening rather than talking is also an effective cinematic technique. Partway through the film a summer shower begins outside the windows and reflects the stormy mood in the chamber while also dramatically affecting the lighting.

The movie does his flaws.  Juror #8 visits the neighborhood where the defendant lived and buys a switchblade knife.  Not only are switchblades illegal but as a juror he’s doing research which is prohibited (and he somehow brought the illegal knife into the courthouse which would be harder to do today with security screening).  No less an authority than Sonia Sotomayor has declared that the jurors actions in this film is exactly what jurors should not do, and the Juror #8’s actions probably would’ve lead to a mistrial.  I also feel that it rings hollow that Juror #3’s intransigence is due to his failed relationship with his son.

I found that my experience watching this film changed significantly over 30-some-odd-years.  My teenage self saw this as a demonstration of how the American justice system works for good, or at least an idealistic presentation of such.  Nowadays, I feel the opposite.  The prosecution in this case clearly failed to make a credible case, the defense did even less to protect the defendant, and even the judge seems bored by the case.  11 jurors were ready to send a person to their death and call it a day.  In the real world, people like Juror #8 are few and far between and we’ve seen again and again that we can’t count on them to be around to protect justice and democracy when needed

  • One of the effects of the COVID pandemic is that it was very unsettling to watch dozen men together in a confined space, especially since at least one of them kept coughing.  The amount of second-hand smoke in the room also looked unpleasant.
  • I feel this movie would make a good double feature with Do the Right Thing.  Both movies are said to take place on the hottest day of the year (and thus have very sweaty actors) and deal with very heated arguments regarding race and justice.
  • All through the movie, I felt that Lee J. Cobb reminded me of George C. Scott.  It turns out that Scott played the role  of Juror # 3 in the 1997 remake.  Not only that but Scott took over the role of Lieutenant Kinderman in Exorcist III, which Cobb originated in The Exorcist!
  • I also appreciate that two actors ended up associated with The Odd Couple franchise: John Fiedler, who appeared in the movie, and Jack Klugman, who stared in the tv show.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)


Title: Au Hasard Balthazar
Release Date: May 25, 1966
Director: Robert Bresson
Production Company: Cinema Ventures
Summary/Review:

It’s a movie about the life of donkey, this should be sweet and light!  Or not.  Au Hasard Balthazar needs content warnings not just for animal cruelty but for the repeated abuse and sexual assault of a woman.  That woman is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), one of the children in a rural village in the Pyrenees who baptizes the young donkey Balthazar in the opening scene.

Years pass by and as Balthazar is passed from cruel owner to cruel owner, the teenaged Marie is the main human protagonist and one of the few people who are kind and affectionate to the donkey. Unfortunately for Marie, she’s only able to find escape from her constricted life in an abusive relationship with the film’s main antagonist, the smug and evil criminal Gérard (François Lafarge).

While I don’t believe that movies need a “Hollywood ending,” I also don’t understand why so many “great films” have to be unbearably bleak.  There is no humor or humanity anywhere in this film.  Roger Ebert wrote a beautiful review of this movie, and I totally agree that Balthazar’s story is designed to elicit empathy.  I don’t agree with how Breeson handles the human actors who’s dialogue often sounds stilted and as if they’re reciting philosophical treatise.  The way Breeson constructs Marie’s story is basically torture porn (not surprisingly 65-year-old Breeson was sexually pursuing  the 18-year-old Wiazemsky behind-the-scenes) and borderline misogynistic.

Maybe this isn’t a “bad movie” by definition, but it makes me feel bad and I don’t like it.

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: Casablanca (1942)


Title: Casablanca
Release Date: November 26, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

I watched this as a special Valentine’s Day viewing through the Brattle Theatre’s streaming service.

I remember the first time I watched Casablanca as a teenager and realized that it really was as good as everyone said it was.  Yes, it’s a great romance, but it’s so much more than that.  Or, to put it better, it’s about love but not just the romantic love of a man and woman, but love for humanity.

Let’s explore the ways in which Casablanca is great.  First, there’s the dialogue. The movie is filled with familiar quotations and it can be a bit jarring to hear them in context.  But that demonstrates just how well the film is written.

Next, there’s the cast.  Not just Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the star-crossed Rick and Ilsa, but everyone.  Claude Raines as the gleefully corrupt Captain Louis Renault, Peter Lorre as the sketchy Signor Ugarte, Dooley Wilson as the pianist Sam (even though he was  drummer in real life), and S.Z. Sakall as the conscientious waiter, Carl (apologies to Paul Henreid, you did fine as the noble Victor Laszlo, you just got overshadowed). It’s notable for an American production of that time that most of the cast were born outside the United States. In fact, many minor characters and bit parts were played by actual refugees and exiles from Europe.

Which leads to my final point.  This movie was made while World War II was still going on. In fact, it was fairly early in the war, and the United States had just entered the conflict.  The Fall of Paris, depicted in the movie as a long ago memory, happened less than two years before it was recreated for the movie.  No one involved in making this knew how the war would turn out, and indications at the time pointed toward an Axis victory.  This makes the shows of defiance and sacrifice by the characters depicted in the film all the more powerful.

I’m going to finish this review with a couple of silly questions:

  • How did Rick get from Paris to Morocco and establish a large and successful cafe in less than two years?  From what we know about him, he doesn’t seem to have the experience as a restaurateur, the money to pull it off, or the time to get himself so well established in the community.
  • There must be Rick/Louis slash fiction out there.  I’m not the only one seeing this, right?

Casablanca is a deserved classic and if for some iconoclastic reasons you haven’t seen it, get over yourself and give it a viewing.

Rating: *****

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 Review: Pickpocket (1959)


Title: Pickpocket
Release Date: 16 December 1959
Director: Robert Bresson
Production Company: Compagnie Cinématographique de France
Summary/Review:

In Paris, a young man named Michel (nonprofessional actor Martin LaSalle) decides to take up thievery.  He is not in desperate need for money, but he has a theory that certain people are more elite than others and can benefit society by robbing the lesser people. Having the protagonist be a sociopath makes him extremely unsympathetic, and made the movie hard to watch for me (and not surprisingly it also inspired Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver).

The Chief Inspector of the police (Jean Pélégri) has his eye on Michel from the start and they have some cagey conversations, but it’s not exactly a thriller or interpersonal drama like Les Miserables. Michel also forms a relationship with the young woman who lives next to his mother, Jeanne (Marika Green), although I don’t know what’s in it for her since he literally pays no attention to her until the end of the film.

Pickpocket is expertly filmed, and the best parts of the movie are the scenes when Michel and his accomplices balletically remove wallets from their marks at train stations and aboard trains. But the rest of the movie doesn’t do much for me.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Stalag 17 (1953)


Title: Stalag 17
Release Date: July 1, 1953
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Set in the prisoner of war camp in Germany in December 1944, Stalag 17 sits somewhere between the grim realism of A Man Escaped and the goofiness of Hogan Heroes (at tv show clearly drew upon this movie for influence). The story focuses on a barracks of American prisoners where attempts at escape and the possession of a radio are foiled by the genial and seemingly incompetent guard, Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz (Sig Ruman). The men in the barracks suspect that one of their own is a spy, and suspicion falls on a cynical Bostonian who has succeeded in bargaining for luxuries with the Germans, J.J. Sefton (William Holden, reunited with director Billy Wilder after Sunset Boulevard).

The move successfully balances drama with comedy. A lot of screen time is given to Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss ) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) whose comic antics keep the barracks loose.  At times, it feels more like a frat house than a prison camp, especially when the men leer at the Russian women prisoners in an adjacent camp. Meanwhile, Sefton works to clear his name and find the real stoolie, while all the prisoner work to defend Lieutenant James Dunbar (Don Taylor) from execution. If there’s one flaw with the movie is that the audience isn’t given any clues on who is spying for the Germans although I suppose the movie isn’t meant to be a mystery.  The movie also features a young Peter Graves, of Mission: Impossible and Airplane! fame as the barracks security chief, Frank Price.

I watched this movie multiple times when I was young, and I’m happy to say that it still holds up as an engaging film.  I didn’t know who Billy Wilder was back then, but now that I’ve seen more of his work, I can definitely say that Wilder was a versatile and talented writer and director.

Rating: ****