The Killers (1946)

Based on the 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers is straight up film noir. Directed by Robert Siodmak, he film begins with two hit men entering a sleepy small town and terrorizing the staff at the dinner. When they find out where the “Old Swede” (Burt Lancaster) lives, they complete their job. The odd thing is the Old Swede expects and accepts his fate.”

Reardon, An insurance investigator, is called in to find the Swede’s beneficiary. As the investigation progresses we learn about the Swede’s life and how he went from a failing boxer, to a robber, and how his love for a femme fatal named Kitty (Ava Gardner) was his downfall.

The insurance company doesn’t see the worth of pursuing the Swede’s decline or the big heist of $250,000 as it will minimally impact the ledger balance, but Reardon persuades his boss for a few days leeway. The story mainly consists of flashbacks, which are taboo in Hollywood, at least according to most screenwriting books, but they work. Each old acquaintance or lady friend has insight into the Swede.

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The Criterion Collection DVD comes with bonus commentaries and I recommend watching the one with award winning master writer, Stuart M. Kaminsky who explains the birth of film noir, which was brought over to the US from German directors who emigrated here and how the films got darker and darker with time. Then the New Wave French became enamored of the style and coined the term Film Noir. Kaminsky offers his insights into the success of the story and both the 1946 and 1964 film versions. The DVD set has both of these versions and next I’ll watch the 1964 film with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.

Hud (1963)

Starring a young Paul Newman, Hud riveted me. Lon Bannon’s mission is to track down his uncle Hud Bannon, who’s hot footing it out of his lover’s house just before her husband gets home. Lon’s got to bring his prodigal uncle home. A heifer has mysteriously died and grandpa, Homer Bannon, has called in the county vet, who soon confirms his worst fear the herd has foot and mouth disease. They’ll all have to be put down.

Straight-shooter Homer’s life work is about to be totally wiped out, yet his cavalier son Hud maintains his que sera sera attitude. Just when the family needs wisdom and prudence, Hud keeps carousing, sometimes with his teenage nephew in tow. Lon looks up to Hud, even though he can see his failings.

Father and son constant argue and judge each other, though Homer has more wisdom than Hud. Hud believes their conflict dates back to the night he got into a car accident that killed his beloved brother, Lon’s dad. Homer disagrees. That resentment has been buried, Homer insists. His contempt comes from Hud’s values, or lack of.

Patricia Neal plays a sharp-tonged housekeeper, whom both Hud and Lon admire.

Hud’s a compelling film that made me care about every character and the survival of the traditional family ranch.

Death on the Nile

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This coming week my mystery book club was going to meet to discuss Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I listened to the audio book and watched the movie. The audio book’s narrator David Suchet was terrific and brought the story to life.

While on a vacation in Egypt Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who’s forever telling people he isn’t French, gets on board a boat and finds his fellow travelers keep getting bumped off. There’s a love triangle consisting of Linnet, a wealthy heiress, Jacqueline her good friend and her Simon new husband, who was in love with the friend. There’s a German doctor, a rich, imperious woman and the young companion who resents her boss. The heiress’ trustee, her London lawyer her maid, and the maid’s married lover round out the cast.

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One eerie element to the story is that Jacqueline’s stalking Linnet. Everywhere they go Jacqueline’s there. Ever jumpy, things get worse when Linette is found dead. Poirot soon suspects everyone. Then the bodies start to pile up. The maid is found dead and then a third murder follows. Poirot finds almost everyone has a motive.

With Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, David Niven, Angela Lansberry, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Olivia Hussey, the film is chock full of stars. Alas, I found the story in both formats lacking. I wasn’t pulled in to the story as Poirot didn’t use much hard evidence. It seemed that his main talent was supposition and conjecture to find possible motives. He doesn’t draw me in the way Sherlock Holmes does. I was left craving a better plot and more complex characters. I felt Christie just took the idea of Murder on the Orient Express and just made a few small changes.

 

Queen Christina

Starring Greta Garbo, Queen Christina shows a woman who became the leader of Sweden as a child when her father died, lead like a man. Garbo captivates. I don’t think I’d seen her in a movie, just in photos. My, was she compelling. Her magnetism keeps all eyes on her. This strong, passionate queen had no qualms about leadership. Her problem is the nagging requests for her to marry the King of Spain.

In the beginning of the film she had no desire to marry. When she gets fed up with the wheedling to coax her into the King of Spain’s arms, she bolts from the court. Dressed as a man, followed by her mentor, she encounters the Spanish envoy whose carriage falls into a rut. She teases and mocks him and his retinue. When she overhears the envoy’s plan to take a room at a nearby inn, she beats him to it and takes the last room for miles. Incognito, the queen teases the envoy when he arrives at the inn. Yet he gets the last laugh when the innkeeper, who’s swayed by the envoy’s higher offer, convinces the disguised queen to share the room with the envoy.

It isn’t long before the queen’s gender is revealed to the envoy and before you know it, they’re madly in love. Of course that presents problems because 1) the envoy’s mission is to convey his King’s proposal to Queen Christina and 2) he’s bound to discover his love’s true identity.

Garbo gives a strong performance and the story offers a surprise ending. The costuming was elegant and arresting. I’ve got to see more of Garbo’s films. You should too.

Note: There was a Queen Christina, who ruled Sweden in the 17th century, but I can’t find any evidence that this film isn’t more than conjecture.

Summertime

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I was surprised that Katerine Hepburn could bore me. In Davide Lean’s Summertime (1955) she did. Hepburn plays Jane, an American secretary on her dream vacation in Venice. She’s dreamed of this trip for years and has a lot of energy and high expectations. Soon Jane’s pouting because her trip isn’t as idyllic as she hoped. She doesn’t have any horrible mishaps like getting robbed or sick so to me she just needed to look for some alternatives. Maybe she should go out for a day with the American couple who seemed a bit corny, maybe she should go to a different city or get a tour guide over the age of 10 instead of the urchin who looked about 6, had no shoes, spoke English better than a lot of Italian university students and who spoked cigarettes, which Jane gave him. (That was something you wouldn’t see today. Jane didn’t spoke on screen ever, but had a pack and bargained with this ragamuffin for.)

Jane does bump into an handsome Italian, Renato in the Saint Marco’s Square and the next day happens to go into Renato’s shop. There’s clearly some attraction, but Jane’s awfully standoffish despite her severe loneliness which makes it impossible to enjoy Italy.

About half of the film consists of Jane moping, which made it drag. Eventually, Renato pursues Jane, who soon discovers he’s married. At that revelation, Jane wants to end things, but she’s so lonely.

Ugh!

Jane had built this trip up in her mind so much that it was destined to disappoint. When she talks of home, it’s not as though she hates it. We’re not sure why she never married. She does mention going to a real ball as teen so she’s had opportunities for romance apparently.

Renato continues to pursue her and responds with pat answers to questions about his wife and children. Jane could do better. I hoped she’d end things with Renato.

All in all, I found the film dull despite Hepburn’s ability to be clever and energetic.

Remorques

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Remorques (1941) stars Jean Gabin as André, a tugboat captain, married to the lovely, devoted Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud). As the film opens André and Yvonne appear to be the perfect couple. Everyone at a wedding for one of André’s crew members, looks to Yvonne and André, who’ve been married 10 years as the perfect couple. I sure did. They are loving, practical and truly care about each other deeply.

When the Cyclone, André’s boat is called to rescue a ship caught in a wild storm, Yvonne offers to console the bride whose honeymoon must be postponed and whose husband faces peril with his comrades. Yvonne shares how distraught she gets anytime her husband goes to sea and how lonely she is. Yvonne’s built her life around her marriage, while André’s first priority is his boat and its mission with his wife coming in a close second.

As the waves and storm attack the boats, the scenes of the storm thrill.

The rescue is daunting enough, but the greedy captain of the endangered ship doesn’t want to be rescued. If his boat is saved, he’ll have to pay the tugboat for doing so. He’d rather lose all his crew and cargo and collect the insurance. Now that’s a villain.

Disgusted by the evil captain, his wife Catherine (Michele Morgan) and some crew members escape in a raft and the tugboat takes them aboard. Of course, Catherine is stunning. She’s decided to leave her nasty husband.

You can probably guess what happens. Yep, Catherine tempts the faithful André. The film gets sentimental and predictable but Gabin, Renaurd and Morgan’s performances make Remorque compelling. It’s not a masterpiece, but it held my interest.

The Saphead

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Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature film was playing Bertie Van Alstyne in The Saphead. Saphead sure is a disparaging way to refer to someone. It refers to a weak-minded stupid person. Is Bertie Van Alstyne really a saphead? His tycoon father certainly thinks so, but Agnes, Bertie’s adopted sister disagrees. She’s smitten. When she returns home Bertie defies his wealthy father and tries to elope with Agnes. Their plans are comically foiled and Bertie shows his father that he’s no wimp or fool (well not completely either) so the wedding proceeds until Mark, Bertie’s lazy, crooked, philandering brother-in-law plants a letter from his dead mistress on Bertie.

Bertie is framed. His father stops the wedding so that sweet Agnes isn’t married to a philanderer with an illegitimate daughter. Crushed, but noble, Bertie goes to the cosy house he bought for his new bride. His solo dinner amidst the wedding decorations is a sad scene indeed.

The next day Bertie tries to lift his spirits by going to the Stock Exchange where he’s recently purchased a seat. Of course, the traders laugh at his expense and play him for a fool. Yet the tables get turned when Bertie, inadvertently saves the day when he foils his brother-in-laws plot to take over the family fortune.

The version I got from the library needs restoration. Many of the outdoor scenes looked green, while the indoor ones were black and white.

The Saphead charmed me with it’s innocence and simplicity. Keaton’s facial expressions and physical humor stole the show. The plot took turns I didn’t expect and other than forgetting all about Henrietta’s poor orphan child, the story was a delight.

Death of a Cyclist

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Death of a Cyclist (1955) is a powerful film from Spain. I found this via serendipity as the image on the DVD box intrigued me. The Criterion Collection site offers a plot summary I can’t trump, so here that is:

Upper-class geometry professor Juan and his wealthy, married mistress, Maria José, driving back from a late-night rendezvous, accidentally hit a cyclist, and run. The resulting, exquisitely shot tale of guilt, infidelity, and blackmail reveals the wide gap between the rich and the poor in Spain, and surveys the corrupt ethics of a society seduced by decadence. Juan Antonio Bardem’s charged melodrama Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) was a direct attack on 1950s Spanish society under Franco’s rule. Though it was affected by the dictates of censorship, its sting could never be dulled.

Compelling and intense, Lucia Bosé stars as Maria José, the stunning mistress who’s anxious about the black mail and incrimination she faces, while not worrying much about her responsibility for the death of the bicyclist. As the film progresses, the professor faces a career crisis caused by distraction due to his ruminating over the accident. As the university students lay siege to the administration building, the professor gains moral clarity which leads to a most surprising ending.
 

I liked that the story offered unpredictable plot turns. Lucia Bosé’s beauty and style were simple and captivating. The cinematography was bold and showed how black and white films can achieve more stunning results than color more often than not. I do wonder was Spain of the 1950s that immoral? How much of this is exaggeration?

I highly recommend Death of a Cyclist and I’ll look for more films with Bosé and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem.

All that Heaven Allows

The trailer promises “torture and ecstasy.” Maybe we get some.

I don’t mean I didn’t enjoy All that Heaven Allows (1955) starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson as a November – June romance, but the movie does swerve into the melodrama lane as the ad suggests.

The movie opens with wealthy widow Cary (Wyman) getting urged to attend a party by her friend Sara (played by Bewitched’s Agnes Morehead). Cary’s got to fend off loneliness after all. Sara later urges Cary to get a television set as that’s a good companion. At a country club party, Cary and the audience are bored by the snobbish guests who idolize convention.

Then young and handsome Ron enters Cary’s life and soon they’re in love. A gardener by trade, Ron prefers a simple, outdoorsy life. His friends admire his down-to-earth value system. As time goes by, Ron proposes and Cary wants her friends and college age kids to know about her relationship.

A beautiful middle-aged woman and a young man?! This pair sends shockwaves through the town. Cary’s friends are vicious towards Ron. Her children through adolescent tantrums. What are you thinking? Do you know how this looks?

Cary has to choose between her secure past and a romantic future.

The film took on a fresh situation. Questions like does Ron want children? aren’t addressed as the main theme is the effects of snobbery and convention. Sometimes the dialog was laid on thick and wanted to tell the director “I know what you’re driving at so you don’t need to be so obvious.” All in all, I was pulled into the story and happy to stick with it.

Auntie Mame

I can’t think of a more vibrant, exuberant character than Auntie Mame played by Rosalind Russell.

“Live! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

When young Patrick’s father dies, he’s sent to live with his vivacious Auntie Mame. Before you know it, he’s stirring the perfect martini and at a progressive school where clothing is optional. His trustee Mr. Babcock is appalled and Patrick is shipped off to a boarding school but gets to spend every holiday with his only living relative Auntie Mame, a free-spirit and free-thinker.

Dwight Babcock: I dropped by the Bixby School. And what do I find? I find he isn’t even registered there, he never has been. So I’ve been hunting through every low, crockpot school in this town, and I finally found him in the lowest of them all.

Mame Dennis: Mr. Page is a progressive educator…

Dwight Babcock: There they were, a schoolroom full of them: boys, girls, teachers, romping around stark naked, bare as the day they were born.

Mame Dennis: I assure you that the children under Mr. Page’s care were engaged in normal, healthful, broadening pursuits.

Dwight Babcock: Broadening? You show them what you were doing when I broke into that place. Go ahead, show them.

Patrick Dennis: We were just playing Fish Families.

Dwight Babcock: Fish Families!

Patrick Dennis: It’s part of “constructive play”.

Dwight Babcock: Now, listen to this.

Mame Dennis: Show me now, darling, show me.

Patrick Dennis: Well, we do it right after yogurt time. Mrs. Page and all the girls crouch down on the floor under the sun lamps. And they pretend to be lady fishes, depositing their eggs in the sand. Then Mr. Page and all the boys do what gentlemen fish do.

Mame Dennis: [pause] What could be more wholesome or natural?

When the market crashes, Mame loses her fortune and takes on a variety of jobs which she botches with aplomb. All looks bleak till Game meets an oil tycoon from Texas who soon marries her after she defies his family’s efforts to ridicule her.

Sally Cato: [before a fox-hunt] Well? Shall we to the hounds?
Mame Dennis: [muttering] Yeah, I’d love to meet your family.

The film delights from start to finish. Same does face her share of slings and arrows and always faces them with courage, charm and wit. I haven’t seen this film in years and found it one of the most delightful films I’ve seen in years. I’d say this is a perfect film. I must find more of Rosalind Russell’s films, though I fear few films can match or exceed this comedic masterpiece.