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: Touch of Evil (1958)


Title: Touch of Evil
Release Date: February 1958
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: Universal-International
Summary/Review:

Touch of Evil takes place on the border of Mexico and the United States, beginning with someone placing a time bomb in a car in the sleazy Mexican border town that doesn’t explode until the driver crosses the border.  Witnesses to the explosion include Mexican special prosecutor Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his newlywed wife Susan (Janet Leigh).  Vargas takes an interest in the case and unravels the corrupt career of a racist American police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Meanwhile, Susan stays at an isolated motel not realising that it is owned by the sinister Grandi gang.  Bad things always happen when Janet Leigh stays at a motel.

This is not a movie that you watch for the plot as it doesn’t make much sense if you think much of it and every scene exists simply to set up the next twist.  Instead this is a movie you watch for the technical brilliance of its filming, particularly the camera work that is exemplified in the brilliant opening scene where we follow the car with the ticking time bomb and are simultaneously introduced to Vargas and Susan walking down the street. Heston may be the least Mexican person ever (he either has a deep tan or is wearing brownface) but he acquits himself well as the noble prosecutor.  Welles for his part is suitably slimy as the cop who plants evidence on his suspects.  Other notable performances include Dennis Weaver as the twitchy night manager of the motel (another precursor to Psycho) and Marlene Dietrich as the brothel owner and Quinlans ex-lover.  This is the movie I’d like to see again on the big screen if I have the opportunity.

Note: I watched the 1998 version of the movie that was edited to Welles’ specifications.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Laura (1944)


Title: Laura 
Release Date: October 11, 1944
Director: Otto Preminger
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

I first watched Laura about 25 years ago with a friend named Laura.  I’ve long ago lost touch with her which is sad because she was a good person.  This is irrelevant of course to the story of this film noir murder mystery.  Like many film noir movies, the plot and the actions of its characters don’t make a lot of sense upon thinking about it.  But sense is not important with the delivery of sparkling dialogue and camp theatricality delivered by its actors.

Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a young woman who works at a New York City advertising firm.  Among the witnesses/suspects he interviews is Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a self-aggrandizing columnist who was Laura’s friend and svengali who was jealous of her attention to other men.  One of those men was her fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) who had been having an affair with Laura’s co-worker.  Shelby is also a kept man to Laura’s socialite aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As McPherson examines Laura’s personal effects and admires her oil portrait, it appears that he is falling in love with the dead woman.

Laura is full of twists and turns and mostly some terrific outlandish performances by Webb and Price.  It’s a great example of Classic Hollywood at its wackiest.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Blue Velvet (1986)


Title: Blue Velvet
Release Date: September 19, 1986
Director: David Lynch
Production Company: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG)
Summary/Review:

I’ve long liked the work of David Lynch, but I missed this one so it was good to have an excuse to finally watch it.  The story tells of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) who returns home from college to his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina to help out when his father is hospitalized.  On a walk through the woods he finds a severed ear and becomes obsessed with discovering the mystery behind it.  The daughter of a police detective, Sandy Williams (a very young Laura Dern), informs him that the police suspect a singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) may be connected to the case.  Jeffrey begins to surveil Dorothy which leads him into a world of trouble.

I won’t go into the details but Jeffrey uncovers a criminal conspiracy lead by the extremely disturbed Frank (Dennis Hopper). I really enjoyed the first part of the movie when it was  a stylish noir mystery, but once Frank is revealed and Jeffrey is brought into his orbit I found it less interesting.  Frank is an amalgamation of every abusive, gaslighting, self-aggrandizing asshole I’ve ever know and I really don’t need to spend my time watching that.  I was also disappointed that both Dorothy and Sandy tended to fall into the “damsel in distress” trope.  There are reasons for that, but I think there were opportunities to have one of them seize initiative.

Overall though I appreciated that direction, cinematography, and overall mood of the film, which is aided by the selection of great music to fit the scenes.  The acting of all the leads is excellent, even Hopper as the all-too-convincing raging psychopath.  I’m really surprised to learn that Dern is about a decade younger than I realized.  I guess since she was making movies when I was in middle school it didn’t occur to me to realize she’s just a few years older than me.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter M

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Release Date: October 3, 1941
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

I watched The Maltese Falcon several years ago – maybe at The Brattle Theatre or maybe I just borrowed the DVD from the library – and I also read the Dashiell Hammett book it is based upon around the same time.  But I didn’t remember much about it, which is a good thing since it meant I could enjoy the mystery of it once again.  I also felt that I thought the movie was good but not great, so I was also surprised to find I was really enjoying it the second time around.

The Maltese Falcon is a detective story featuring Humphrey Bogart as the hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade.  The movie is considered to be one of the examples of the film noir genre, or at least a predecessor to film noir.  Spade is definitely a morally ambiguous character and it is unclear whether he is actually willing to go along with the criminals’ plans or if he is just playing them.  When he does the right thing at the end of the movie, it seems like he does it more out of spite than justice.

The story begins when a woman, Ruth Wonderly or Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) depending on which version of her life she’s telling, hires Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan).  When Archer is murdered, Spade finds himself drawn into a plot around finding the titular MacGuffin, a medieval figurine covered in valuable gemstones.  Also seeking the Maltese Falcon are conman Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and mobster Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

This was John Huston’s first film as a director, and despite the detective story, it is not really an action film.  In fact, I found it has a lot of unexpected parallels to Huston’s final film, The Dead, which is also a book adaptation about people who spend a lot of time talking but rarely speak the truth.  Subtext is key in the battle of wits among Spade, Brigid, Cairo, and Gutman.  The film succeeds because of the high quality acting of its cast.  Surprisingly, this was Greenstreet’s first film, while Lorre was just making his way into American films, and even Bogart was just becoming an A-list celebrity.  They’re firing on all cylinders in this film and the trio would reunite in Casablanca the following year, and Greenstreet and Lorre would make a total of nine movies together!

For whatever reason, this movie failed to make a big impression on my around 17 years ago.  But upon revisiting this movie I feel it has earned a spot among my favorite movies of all time.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)


Title: Kiss Me Deadly
Release Date: May 18, 1955
Director: Robert Aldrich
Production Company: Parklane Pictures
Summary/Review:

A young woman, Christina (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), runs barefoot down a highway, wearing nothing but a trench coat. She stops a passing sportscar, driven by Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker).  The credits roll from bottom up as they drive off in the night. Thus is the stunning beginning of this film noir classic.

When Christina ends up dead and Hammer awakens in a hospital days later, Hammer realizes that Christina must’ve been into something big. He’s a private detective who specializes in divorce cases but nevertheless ignores the police when they tell him not investigate the case.  Hammer questions mobsters, kisses beautiful woman, and punches stooges.  Every trope you may have seen in a film noir homage or parody is in this film.  I guess they had to start somewhere.

The plot revolves around the MacGuffin of a mysterious box which appears to have influenced films ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Pulp Fiction.  Meeker’s Hammer is brutally violent, unsentimental, and representative of the nihilism at the heart of this film.  The story doesn’t make much sense upon a little reflection, but I think this movie is more about atmosphere and capturing the truth of Los Angeles in the many location shots.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Vertigo (1958) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Vertigo
Release Date: May 9, 1958
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company:  Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
Synopsis:

San Francisco police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) pursues a criminal in a rooftop chase that leads to a police officer falling to his death, and Scottie suffering from vertigo due to a fear of heights.  He retires from the police force, but an old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) hires him as a private detective to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) who has been behaving strangely.

Scottie tales Madeleine, making a scenic tour of San Francisco sights including the florist, Mission Delores, the Legion of Honor art museum, and the McKittrick Hotel in an old mansion.  She seems to be obsessed with an 19th-century San Francisco woman, Carlotta Valdes who Scottie learns from a local historian had committed suicide at the age of 26 after being cast aside by her wealthy lover.  Elster confirms that Carlotta is Madeleine’s great-grandmother and that he fears Carlotta’s spirit is possessing Madeleine.

Tailing Madeleine to Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, he witnesses her jumping into the Bay and jumps in to rescue her.  After she comes to in his apartment, they talk and form a connection.  The next day they start spending time wandering San Francisco together.  Madeleine describes a place from her dreams that Scottie recognizes as a preserved historic site Mission San Juan Bautista.  Believing that visiting may jar her memory and help solve the problems she’s having, Scottie takes Madeleine to the mission.  After kissing and declaring her love, Madeleine runs up the stairs of the church tower.  Unable to pursue her due to vertigo, Scottie watches helplessly as she falls to her death.

Severely traumatized, Scottie spends several months in a sanatorium.  Returning to his normal life, he spots a shop clerk on the street who resembles Madeleine.  He follows her to her hotel apartment, and despite her declarations that she is Judy from Kansas, he insinuates himself into her life.  His obsession builds as he purchases clothing for her that Madeleine wore and bleaches her hair blond.

Scottie makes a stunning realization when Judy dons a necklace that was Madeleine’s and was said to once be Carlotta’s. He drives back to Mission San Juan Bautista and confronts Judy as they climb the tower.  She admits that she worked with Elster in a plot to kill his real wife whose murdered body was actually tossed from the tower.  Knowing that Scottie would not reach the top due to his vertigo meant he’d be the perfect credible witness for their con.  Scottie overcomes his vertigo and he and Judy reach the top of the bell tower where Judy is startled by a nun and falls to her death.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This was yet another movie I watched for the first time in my high school film studies class.  I saw it several times but one memorable occasion in college came in while a friend was watching it and observed how Jimmy Stewart never seems to be paying attention to the road in the many scenes where he drives his car.  We had some good laughs about that.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered most of the basic plot points well, if not the details.

What Did I Forget?:

The biggest thing I forgot is that Judy has a flashback to the real Madeleine’s murder and narrates a letter confessing her role in it before reconsidering.  I honestly thought that the revelation of Judy’s involvement as accessory to murder didn’t come until the very end of the movie, which honestly makes more sense from a storytelling perspective.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

Casting the affable Jimmy Stewart as the controlling, obsessive Scottie works in that viewers are sympathetic to him even as he is truly awful. Kim Novac does a great job portraying a stiff wealthy woman with a mid-Atlantic accent as Madeleine and then the more working woman Judy.  Her character is really good at improv since she’s almost always playing someone else to deceive Scottie.  The cinematography and colors of the movie are amazing as are the outfits that Edith Head designed for Kim Novac.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I think the technical brilliance of the movie and how it makes San Francisco its palette may overshadow the fact that this is a slow-moving story with a romance that’s not very credible.  Also, Elster’s plot to kill his wife by hiring Judy to deceive Scottie makes very little sense in retrospect.  So many things had to go right for that plan to come to fruition that seemed needlessly complicated.  Mind you, this movie is still great, it is just not as perfect as I remembered.

Is It a Classic?:

It is a classic, but I think people overrate it when they put it at or near the top of the all-time great movie lists.  I don’t even think it is the best Hitchcock movie.  It is definitely the iconic San Francisco movie, though.

Rating: ****

One More All-Time Favorite Movie Starting With V:

  1. Les Visiteurs

What is your favorite movie starting with V?  What would you guess is my movie for W (Hint: it’s a documentary with a punch!)?  Let me know in the comments!

Classic Movie Review: Chinatown (1974)


Title: Chinatown
Release Date: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Production Company: Penthouse | Long Road Productions | Robert Evans Company
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie with some reluctance as I find Jack Nicholson overrated in that he always plays some variation of the same wiseass character.  I also think Faye Dunaway is not a good actor at all.  But more seriously, this movie is directed by someone who would go on to be a notorious child rapist.  With those reservations in mind, I gave Chinatown the benefit of the doubt.

Much as The Godfather put a New Hollywood spin on the gangster movie, Chinatown attempts to reinvent the film noir detective story.  Nicholson portrays a Los Angeles private detective, Jake Gittes, in the 1930s who typically investigates infidelity cases.  The case he takes as this movie starts is another cheating husband case but leads into a scandal involving the construction of a new aqueduct and the accumulation of land alongside it that will become more valuable when it can be irrigated.

Gittes investigates Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Dunaway), the spouse of LA’s water department engineer, and her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), who was the former business partner at a private water company. Only a small part of this movie, at the end, takes place in the neighborhood of Chinatown in Los Angeles.  Instead “Chinatown” is used as a metaphor for the unsolvable mess of a situation that Gittes finds himself trying to unravel.  It’s kind of racist since it’s an all-white cast involved in this mess (the treatment of Asian characters in the movie is stereotypical as well).

I guess Chinatown was a pithier title than Los Angeles Water Rights Scandals, but I found myself deeply intrigued in the subterfuge around bringing water to the city in a desert. The movie is based loosely on the historical California water wars, although they took place 1-2 decades before the movie is set.  A nice touch is that frequent motif of water and the sound of water throughout the movie.

Chinatown is a pretty good movie but I wouldn’t rank it among the all-time greats.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)


Title: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Release Date: June 26, 1973
Director: Peter Yates
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Long before The Departed and several adaptations of Denis Lehane novels made the Boston Crime Movie a cliche, there was The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Unlike most of the movies that I watched for this classic movie project this is not one that’s considered one of the great movies of all time, but I put it on my list because it’s considered one of the great Boston movies of all time.  Having watched it, I think it deserves much wider recognition because it is a powerful, well-acted, well-paced, and well-scripted film.

Unlike more recent Boston Crime Movies, The Friends of Eddie Coyle emphasizes the mundanity of life in the mob.  Doing mob work is work and for Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) it is  – literally and figuratively – a dead end job.  Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s clear from the beginning that Eddie is not much longer for this world, although you do pull for him to some how get out his situation.

Eddie’s job is to get guns for a gang of bank robbers who need fresh weapons for each heist.  He buys them from gun runner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats).  Coyle is also facing a prison sentence for getting caught in New Hampshire with a truck full of stolen liquor and refusing to squeal on who he was working for, the bartender/mob boss Dillon (Peter Boyle).  He asks ATF agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) for help with a recommendation to the judge, but Foley expects him to turn informer in return.

At first the movie seems disjointed, with scenes of Eddie, Jackie, Dillon, and Dave going about their business intercut with bank robberies.  But it all comes together brilliantly in the end. As I noted above, this movie emphasizes the mundane, everyday aspects of organized crime.  There’s no glamour here, and there’s actually only a handful of scenes of violence.  But the movie does offer terrific acting, especially Mitchum, who pretty much lives in his role as Eddie.

For Boston lovers, there are a lot of great location shots including familiar spots like City Hall Plaza and the old Boston Garden, where Eddie waxes poetically over Bobby Orr in the most Boston scene ever caught on film.  There are also scenes shot in a no longer extant Back Bay bar that is a platonic ideal of the men’s bars that no longer exist.  And although I can’t confirm, I’m almost certain there’s a scene in the late, lamented Doyle’s Cafe.  Much of the film is set in the suburbs at places like Houghton’s Pond and shopping centers with parking lots filled with big cars and flashy signs.

Bostonian or not, this is a film worth watching.

Rating: ****1/2

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: *****