Classic Movie Review: The Searchers (1956)

Title: The Searchers
Release Date: May 16, 1956
Director: John Ford
Production Company: C.V. Whitney Pictures

Cinematically, The Searchers is a beautiful film, shot in the scenic Monument Valley and featuring shots of the landscape and lead characters framed by a doorway as the opening and closing scenes.  Conversely, the subject matter of The Searchers is one of the ugliest things I’ve seen in a movie.

In 1868, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his family home in Texas (despite being filmed in Monument Valley which is in Arizona & Utah) three years after the Civil War ended, but still wearing his traitor’s uniform. Ethan is dismissive of the family’s adopted child, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), because he is 1/8 Comanche.  Soon afterwards, a Comanche tribe attacks the family homestead, killing the adults and abducting Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adopted sister Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, and Natalie Wood later in the movie).

The better part of the movie is Ethan and Martin spending five years searching for Debbie.  Ethan continues to mistreat Martin, and I could make a litany of the racist depictions in this movie, the worst among them being when Martin “accidentally” buys a Comanche wife, which is played for laughs.  The villain of the movie is Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), who likes like a German man with shoe polish on his face, because the actor who plays him was in fact born in Germany.  Worst of all, Ethan’s goal in this obsessive, years-long quest is not to rescue Debbie, but to kill her because he believes she’s better off being dead after being raped by the Comanche.

This is a very ugly movie and I found it very difficult to watch.  Critics like Roger Ebert grant a generous interpretation that John Ford and John Wayne were deliberately portraying Ethan as an evil and racist man. There is a lot of plausibility in those intentions. But audiences then and even some now see Wayne as a hero and ideal representation of what Makes America Great. I think The Searchers is far too easy to be taken at face value, and in that it stands as a representation of the ugliest parts of the American character.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Bus Stop (1956)

Title: Bus Stop
Release Date: August 31, 1956
Director: Joshua Logan
Production Company: Marilyn Monroe Productions | 20th Century Fox

When I put together my list of Classic Movies, I made sure to include a Marilyn Monroe movie since she is such an iconic American movie star. I chose Bus Stop, because it is her most highly-regarded acting performance. Monroe’s acting is indeed spectacular, and while the rest of the cast are playing for comedy, for the most of the movie she acts as if she’s in a horror movie.  Bus Stop offers heaping portions of corn pone and heteronormativity, and let’s just say it hasn’t aged well.

Beauregard Decker (Don Murray) is a naive rancher from Montana who travels to Phoenix, Arizona to participate in a rodeo.  Having never had experience with women he declares that he hopes to find his “angel” on the trip. Spotting Chérie (Monroe) performing a song and dance at a Phoenix cafe, Beau declares that she’s his angel, and when Chérie admits she is physically attracted to him, that’s enough for him to decide that they will be married immediately.

Again, this movie is played for comedy, but it’s hard not to imagine that Beau’s aggressive and abusive behavior is terrifying for Chérie (you can see it in Monroe’s eyes). Beau’s friend and chaperone Virgil (Arthur O’Connell) and Chérie’s friendly co-worker Vera (Eileen Heckart) both try to interfere on Chérie’s behalf, but Beau will listen to no one. Ultimately, Beau abducts Chérie and puts her on a bus to Montana (and yes, the word “abduct” is used by the characters in the movie).

It won’t be a big spoiler to note that this movie does not end with Beau’s arrest for kidnapping a woman and transporting her across state lines.  Instead, Chérie and Beau finally fall in love and go off together.  A generous reading of the final scenes is that Beau finally learns consent and respecting the wishes of other.  But overall watching this movie made me feel uneasy.  Monroe had to deal with abusive relationships in her real life and the future of this fictional marriage does not look promising.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Title: Rebel Without a Cause
Release Date: October 26, 1955
Director: Nicholas Ray
Production Company: Warner Bros.

Rebel Without a Cause is one of those iconic movies that seems to permeate popular culture, but having never watched it before, I was surprised that it was not what I’d imagined.  The movie begins with three of the main characters (all strangers to one another at the time) being brought to the juvenile division: Jim Stark (James Dean) is brought in for drunkeness, “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo) for killing puppies, and Judy (Natalie Wood) for violating curfew.  A sympathetic police inspector, Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), and the movie indicates at this point that teenagers have real concerns and worries that should be respected (the rest of the movie seems to shift back and forth in its sympathies toward the teenagers).

Jim, the rebel, actually seems to be a conscientious kid with a strong moral compass (albeit a tendency for saying inappropriate things), but is frustrated that his family keeps moving him around and he’s unable to make and maintain friendships. On his way to his first day at a new high school he meets Judy and flirts with her, but she rides off with gang of cool kids lead by Buzz (Corey Allen).  At school, Plato befriends Jim and begins to idolizes him.  It’s not clear whether the filmmakers intended it or not, but Mineo’s performance is coded as being gay.

In one, busy and tragic day, the new kid Jim goes through hazing at the hands of the cool kids, including a knife fight and a deadly game of chicken on a cliffside.  Jim, Plato, and Judy try to escape their worries by playing house in an abandoned mansion (the same one used in Sunset Boulevard), but even there they can’t escape violence and tragedy.

The acting performances of the three leads excel despite a hackneyed script and a whole lot of melodrama. There’s an underlying ugliness to the movie.  Jim attributes many of his problems to his father, Frank (a pre-Mr. Magoo/Gilligan’s Island Jim Backus), being subservient to his mother (Ann Doran).  The movie even has him wearing a frilly apron in one scene, apparently to show his lack of manliness and “castration” by his harridan wife.  Plato’s troubles are ascribed to the absence of his parents – which is plausible – and that instead he’s raised by the family’s housekeeper, a unnamed black woman (Marietta Canty), which is totally racist.

The movie is horribly dated and fails to live up to the promise of its opening scenes in depicting the real-life travails of American teenagers.  On the other hand, the movie was clearly shocking and surprisingly original in its treatment of teenagers at the time.  It’s a shame that James Dean was killed in a car crash a month before the movie’s release and he never had the chance to build on his performance.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Title: The Last Days of Disco
Release Date: June 12, 1998
Director: Whit Stillman
Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment | Westerly Films

This movie is set in the “very early 80s” around New York City’s disco scene when bouncers maintained power by holding people behind a velvet rope. Disco culture originated in the Black, Latin, and LGBT communities but these people serve as wallpaper to a story of white young adults, recent graduates of New England colleges, making their way into the City’s business world. Then again, since this story is about the demise of disco, it’s appropriate to focus on people like them.

I appreciate that the movie doesn’t overdo the disco-era costuming. On the other hand, there are numerous anachronisms, such as a conversation about Yuppies years before the term was in common use. The subways are miraculously free of graffiti and their apartment doors lack multiple locks. The movie is as much about the 90s when it was made as the 80s when it was set.

The main characters are Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who knew one another at Hampshire College and have entry-level positions at a publishing company. They end up socializing and becoming roommates despite not really liking one another. Alice is a bit shy and naive, but intelligent. Charlotte is self-absorbed and casually insults everyone on the pretext of offering advice. Everyone knows someone like this and Beckinsale’s performance is deliciously obnoxious.

Into their lives come several men that are all white, have the same haircut, and wear ties so I had trouble telling them apart. Des (Chris Eigeman) is the manager of the disco who pretends to come out as gay to end relationships with women, and casually dates Alice for a time. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) is an ad exec who uses his friendship with Des to sneak clients into the club, and ends up dating Charlotte. Josh (Matt Keeslar) is an assistant district attorney with mental health issues who slowly develops a relationship with Alice. And Dan (Matt Powers) is a co-worker who mocks the women’s disco lifestyle.

The movie has some good dialogue and humor and does a good job capturing that uncertain period after college. I just wish it focused more on Alice and her self-discovery and less on indistinguishable dudebros.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: A Place in the Sun (1951)

TitleA Place in the Sun
Release Date: August 14, 1951
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

This movie made my list because I’ve liked the song by The Clash “The Right Profile,” which is a tribute to Montgomery Clift, and I wanted to watch one of his movies.  Clift stars opposite Elizabeth Taylor in one of her first films after transitioning from a child actor to more mature material.  There’s definitely an essence of a new generation of “hot, young stars” powering this movie.

A Place in the Sun is based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy, although the story is updated to the 1950s. Clift plays George Eastman, a young man who grew up poor with a mother who serves as an inner-city missionary. He attracts the attention of an industrialist uncle and at the beginning of the film arrives to take a low-level position at his uncle’s swimsuit factory.  While the 1950s are often imagined as a time when “a woman’s place is in the home,” it is significant that the vast majority of employees in this factory are women.  Against the company rules, George dating fellow factory worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), and soon she finds herself “in a family way.”

At the same time Alice is dealing with unexpected pregnancy, George is rising through the ranks in the factory and beginning to socialize with his Eastman relatives.  At a party he meets the beautiful heiress Angela Vickers (Taylor) and they swiftly fall in love.  George is caught between two potential futures: poverty and an unhappy marriage with Alice or continuing his ambitious climb up the corporate ladder with his dreamgirl Angela.  His solutions prove deadly.

The movie is admirable in addressing issues such as premarital sex, abortion, class wars, and capital punishment within the bounds of the Hayes Code.  But overall the story plays out as a soapy melodrama.  Clift, Taylor, and Winters all put in excellent performances (the former two making odious characters somewhat sympathetic) in what is, by and large, a bad movie.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Harvey (1950)

Title: Harvey
Release Date: December 21, 1950
Director: Henry Koster
Production Company: Universal Pictures

Harvey is a movie I saw parts of when I was younger, and I’m pretty sure attempted to watch at a later date (checked out the video but didn’t get a chance to watch it).  So it’s been on my “list” for quite some time.  The central premise is whimsical: Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is best friends with a 6′ 3.5″ rabbit who is a pooka that only he can see.

The reality of the film is darker.  Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull) and niece, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), share his home and find their social life ruined by his apparent mental illness and alcoholism.  They’re attempt to have him committed to a sanatorium turns into a comedy of error that relies on a lot of cringe humor that rubs me the wrong way.  Maybe I’m overly sensitive to issues of mental health and substance abuse but much of the humor in this film didn’t make me laugh.

The other big problem with this movie is that the cast of this movie are just not as good at acting as Jimmy Stewart.  He has some wonderful moments in this movie, even if you have to set aside the cliche of the “wise fool” to enjoy them.  When he’s not on screen, it’s readily apparent that his colleagues aren’t up to snuff and the movie suffers.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: All About Eve (1950)

Title: All About Eve
Release Date: October 13, 1950
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Production Company: 20th Century Fox

Told as a flashback, bookended by a ceremony presenting a prestigious award for theater, All About Eve details that rise of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) to Broadway stardom. When we first see Eve, she appears to be a meek but dedicated fan of celebrated actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), wife of the play’s author Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) spots her outside of the theater and invites Eve to meet her hero.

Margo takes a liking to Eve and ends up taking her into her home and having her work as an assistant.  Eve is fastidious in her duty to Margo to the point of obsession.  If you watch all those stalker horror movies from the 80s and 90s, you might think you have an idea of where this is going, but no one had seen those movies in 1950s.  Eve does want to take Margo’s role on the stage – worming her way into becoming understudy without Margo knowing – and she even makes the move on Margo’s boyfriend, the director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill).

The theme of the movie beyond Eve’s many manipulations is the injustice of how women performers are treated as they get older.  Margo has to feel paranoid about Eve taking her place, while also realizing the parts she has to play are written for younger women.  Speaking of younger actresses the movie also features an early performance by Marilyn Monroe in a bit part, although she gets some funny lines.

The script for this film is excellent, and the acting divine, with several meaningful monologues and deep conversations (and arguments!).  I’m not quite sure I buy into the end of the movie.  On one hand it may be Eve getting her just desserts, but on the other it seems to shift the theme of the movie away from wrongness of how aging actress are treated to an idea that women are just vindictive against one another.  Nevertheless, All About Eve is worthy of its reputation as one of the all-time great films.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

Title: The Time Traveler’s Wife
Release Date: August 14, 2009
Director: Robert Schwentke
Production Company: New Line Cinema | Plan B Entertainment

Based on one of my favorite books, the trailer for this adaptation never looked promising, but out of morbid curiosity I finally broke down and watched.  It’s basically a heavily-abridged version of the book.  Obviously an adaptation of a long book can’t include everything, but a good adaptation should over something for the movie viewer.  Clare in this movie comes off as far more passive than in the book, and the talents of Rachel McAdams are wasted.  Henry’s relationships with anyone else, including his father, are depicted as very superficial.  And for some reason the creepy aspect of adult Henry spending time with Clare as a child seems to be emphasized. The location shots in Chicago are pretty but other than that the best I can recommend is to read the book.

Rating: **

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: *****

Movie Review: Boyhood (2014)

Title: Boyhood
Release Date: July 11, 2014
Director: Richard Linklater
Production Company: IFC Productions | Detour Filmproduction | Cinetic Media

Boyhood has been on my “To Be Watched” list for some time due to its unique approach of filming over a dozen years to tell a story about a child growing up. In recent years, there have been some great movies depicting childhood such as Eighth Grade (which covers one year in a life) and Moonlight (which uses three actors to portray the same character at different periods in life) but it is unique for a fictional film to follow the same child actor portraying the same character over an extended period of time.

Director Richard Linklater is fortunate that Ellar Coltrane, who portrays the lead character Mason, is not only a great, naturalistic actor, but that he was able to commit to the whole project.  While the movie is not called Girlhood, it also features a fantastic performance by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater as Mason’s older sister, Samantha.  Anchoring the film are
Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the children’s parents. Arquette puts in a spectacular performance as Olivia, a single mother challenged with balancing work, returning to college, and her personal social life.  Hawke plays Mason, Sr., the fun but irresponsible father who nevertheless tries to remain in his children’s life as they move about Texas.  The “taskmaster mother/fun father” dynamic is a familiar one, but I also appreciate that the characters are not shackled to the stereotypes, and the parents grow and change almost as much as the children.

Boyhood is not a movie for people who need a strict plot, as scenes from 12 years in the life of a child can in no way be strung into a single narrative.  There also isn’t any identification of when the years change between scenes, but different hairstyles, new technologies, and references to current events in the background help identify the date.  The movie is best viewed as a series of vignettes, many of which are powerfully acted focusing on moments in life both meaningful and mundane.

At one point, Olivia remarries, her husband turning out to be an abusive alcoholic. The film portrays the horror of her children reacting to his violent outbursts but also the sorrow of being separated from the the step-siblings they’ve bonded with.  We never see them again, which is something that recurs in the film as a person appears to play a seemingly significant part in the movie and are never seen again, which is a lot like life. The theme of Boyhood also is explored as Mason has to learn from many imperfect models of masculinity, from his father’s well-intentioned but off-the-mark talks, to older kids who make casual sexist and homophobic statements.

One glaring flaw that stands out in this movie is that almost every character is white.  Even Mason’s classroom is depicted with only white students. On the one hand it can be a sadly accurate depiction of how the United States is still segregated, but in a film set in a diverse state like Texas it’s still unsettling that black and brown faces only appear occasionally in the background.  For this and other reasons, Boyhood is not a representative story of growing up in America, but it is a realistic portrayal of the life of a child.

Rating: ****