Heaven Can Wait

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Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1944) could never be made today. Comedy, marriage and courtship have changed too much.

When the courtly, Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) arrives in the foyer of hell, he presents his life story to a debonaire devil. Henry goes all the way back to his childhood when he’s brushed off by a cute little girl he’s sweet on and continues trying to impress girls all his life. He’s well heeled, warm hearted and witty. Yet he doesn’t have all that much luck with women.

His luck changes when he glimpses Martha (Gene Tierney) and falls head over heels. He follows her into a book shop and pretends to be a clerk, just to get a chance to talk to her. A blushing beauty, she’s stand-offish but interested, despite being engaged to another. Soon it turns out that Martha’s fiancée is Henry’s uptight cousin. Henry continues to pursue Martha till she decides to follow her heart.

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The bickering, country in-laws

Lubitsch shows time passing and alludes to Henry’s infidelity in a very subtle way. Still the point’s made and we see a witty, poignant view of marriage. The extended family is a cast of comical, albeit stereotypical characters. But Heaven Can Wait shows that a lovable stereotype like the straight-laced cousin or the frisky, lenient grandpa do entertain when done right.

The Hustler (1961)

With Paul Newman playing Fast Eddie Felson, a young, swaggering hot shot, The Hustler is more about character than competition. At the start of the film, Eddie strolls into a dive pool hall looking for Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Fats is the champ of champs in pool. He agrees to play Eddie who in a marathon session has won $18,000. Fats is ready to call it a night, but Eddie, who’s been guzzling whiskey, insists on continuing the game. By the next morning, Fats has defeated intemperate Eddie, who leaves in shame. Observing all this is Bert Gordon, gambler and manager who knows it all. Before Eddie’s out the door, Bert imparts some pearls of wisdom about character. As Bert sees it Eddie’s got talent, but that doesn’t make you a winner, strong character does.

The Hustler isn’t so much about pool as it is about character. We don’t see as many great shots as I expected and often the score isn’t clearly stated. What we’re to watch for is Eddie’s character.

The middle of the film centers on Eddie meeting the equally melancholy drifter Sarah (Piper Laurie), who drinks too much and hangs out at the bus station where she isn’t judges and where she can get a drink at all hours. Sarah is pretty but sad. She’s a habitual liar without direction. She’s lame, but has pride. She’s very hurt and damaged by life and so is Eddie. Water seeks its own level and their love is based on sharing the pains that come with getting kicked around and lacking the wisdom from a mentor, parent or worldview that helps a person weather life’s storms and accept responsibility.

After a kind of honeymoon period, Eddie returns to the pool halls where his talent gets him victory and his bravado gets his thumbs broken. He heals under Sarah’s care, but is drawn back to hustling. Burt lures him to Louisville where Eddie believes he can win big. Burt offers wisdom, but he’s essentially a serpent whose main concern is his own wallet.

The Hustler is a dark film full of melancholy, but gripped me. Newman, Laurie, Scott and Gleason all put in excellent performances, which garnered four of the film’s nine Oscar nominations. While it’s a dark film, it wasn’t too depressing. Still you might like some lighter fare during the quarantine.

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.

 

Giant (1956)

Love at first sight has its challenges as Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) and Jordan (Rock Hudson) find to when they rush into marriage. Texas rancher/tycoon Jordan visits Maryland to check out a horse he wants to buy. He returns to Texas with not only a horse, but a wife. Neither is easily tamed.

Now some men love strong women, who question big ideas, but Jordan wasn’t like that. He’s a traditionalist and a bigot. His charm and good looks, attracted Leslie, but through most of the film it seems like his notions of keeping poor people in their places, including a sick baby of Latino heritage has to go without a good doctor, drives a wedge between his wife and him.

A fish out of water, Leslie tries to fit in. She’s not warmly received by Jordan’s sister who has run the house and ranch for years. The townspeople have never met anyone from out East so they don’t know how to accept an outsider and Jordan’s little help as he just figures Leslie should fit in.

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Jordan loathes Jett Rink (James Dean), a young handsome ranch hand who inherits a small plot of land from Jordan’s sister. Leslie needs people other than her husband to talk to and she sees no problem befriending Jett. This makes Jordan’s blood boil. He also disapproves of Leslie’s friendliness with the Latinos who live in the village. He wants her to stay home and not make waves, which is just not in Leslie’s nature.

The film jumps ahead to the time when Jordan and Leslie’s children are grown enough to be choosing careers and spouses. As in most families, the children have minds of their own. Jordy, their son, marries a lovely Latino woman, but both parents, particularly Jordan are prejudiced against her. What’s more Jordan disappoints his father by choosing to become a doctor rather than manage the vast ranch that’s been in the family for generations.

One daughter marries a fine man, who wants to ranch, but he wants a small ranch so Jordan’s ranch is unwanted. The other daughter becomes smitten with Jett, who’s become incredibly wealthy. Of course, this leads to major trouble.

The western landscape is grand, but dry and brown. Leslie surprised me with her ability to get Jordan to see that she does love him, but will often disagree with him. As the years passed, Jordan’s development in terms of opening his mind to other ethnicities or women’s roles changed very little. I was surprised that Leslie put up with him, but the story’s from another era. A more modern character would have given up on a husband, who was so stubbornly biased.

When the film shifts in time by 20 years or so, the main characters all get gray, but their skin doesn’t age and their bodies are still hard and fit.

All in all, while the film features big stars and has romance and action, I felt I just had a superficial view of this family. There was never a point where I felt the family was on the brink of disaster. Jet was, but he’s not the central character. He was an outsider, who wanted social acceptance and success. Yet, I didn’t feel I knew enough about him. I felt the characters were all more distant than most. Thus it’s not a film I’d watch again and again.

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.

Wings of Desire (1987)

Wim Wenders fascinated me with his Wings of Desire. This story of and angel, who wants to become human to experience human life is light on plot and on desire. Middle aged angel, Damiel slowly moves through Berlin, observing humans with compassion. At times he and his angel friend Cassiel do console or guard a frail human, but it’s with a light touch. Sometimes they succeed, but not always.

The film’s plot line is lax and the tone mellow. There’s no Hollywood hero with a high-level desire who speeds through the story facing obstacles till he wins in the end. Here a pensive angel wonders about humanity. A female trapeze artist catches his eye. He’d like to meet her, to woo her, but he lives in a different realm and faces few personal obstacles. Aristotle would have tightened things up, for sure.

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The film, which was produced without a script, captures all manner of emotions and small experiences. It delights with beautiful images and no over-the-top special effects. The effects are made as they would be in the 1920s with the camera used to its utmost. We’re won over with simplicity and that was a joy.

The angels could change at will and it wasn’t hard to do so. Peter Falk plays an actor whom Dameil meets now and then. It turns out Falk’s character is a former angel so he mentors Damiel a bit. Again everything’s done with a light touch and Wings of Desire is as much an homage to old Berlin as it is a story of an angel.

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I watched while listening to Wim Wenders’ commentary which included some discussion with Peter Falk. Wenders talks at length about how he can’t film with a script and how he prefers the uncertainty of taking an idea and creating the story day by day. I can’t imagine a studio today to allow such a thing. Also Wenders commented on sights featured in the film and how they’ve disappeared or changed. His love for Berlin was deep and lasting.

I could see people who expect the usual obstacles and the usual ending to a romance to be disappointed, but I was willing to take in the gorgeous images and see where the film would go. So few films meander as much that I felt I could indulge Wenders.

 

Henry V

For my Great Books Book Club, I read and watched Shakespeare’s Henry V. I saw the 1989 film directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also adapted the play and starred in it.

Filled with intrigue, camaraderie, betrayal, battles and even wooing, Henry V is compelling. The best speech is this “We few, we happy few” band of brothers speech. It’s right at the climax of the film as the Brits are about to battle the French who far outnumber them. Like many speeches in Shakespeare it’s stirring and wise.

I did fast-forward through much of the battle scenes because they were authentically brutal, but at the same time true to life. While the film doesn’t contain every line from the play, it’s a faithful version and still packs a wallop and ends with a cute flirtation between Henry and the French princess. The end does have a very different tone than the main part of the film. Is that an error?

If so, I’ll forgive it because it gave another facet of Hennry’s personality.

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.

The Children are Watching

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Be careful of your heart. De Sica’s The Children are Watching Us (1944) will tear it apart. We see a family breaking apart through a 4 year old boy’s eyes. His mother breaks a date to take her son to the movies in favor of taking him to a park where she meets her lover. The paramour has a new job far from Rome and she can’t resist his begging her to come. Pricò, the boy senses something’s wrong. When mama’s gone both father and son are devastated and shamed by the neighborhood gossips.

Pricò is passed to a cruel grandma and careless aunt. The boy’s soon ill and mama returns. The father is distant but on the whole forgiving. He decides the best thing for the family is a summer seaside vacation, though mama hesitates. Although the mother doesn’t like the other vacationers, she’s willing to stick out the vacation. She does want to be a good mom. Yet when the father must return to work, mama’s brazen lover turns up at the resort and mama’s not strong enough to resist his charms. Pricò sees what’s going to happen and runs away almost getting himself killed by a train.

Throughout Pricò tries to be stoic and tries to protect his father and mother to no avail. It’s powerful to see the boy’s hurt and how little he understands about his parents, though he does understand his family’s fragility. The young actor’s performance is heart-breaking. The Children are Watching is a moving film that will stick with you.

An interesting note: though the film shows the harm that infidelity causes a family, De Sica began an affair with actress, María Mercader. Ah, human frailty!