Vivacious Lady

If you’re looking for pure fun and romance, check out Vivacious Lady (1937) starring Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. Straight-laced professor Peter is sent by his father the president of a small town college to retrieve his cousin from the big, frivolous city of New York. He finds cousin Keith at a a night club and begins to scold him for his 

Keith ducks and dives around Peter’s sermonizing and asks for some more time to see the woman of his dreams perform her number. Peter agrees and falls head over heals for Francey, a vivacious blonde. 

Before you know it, Francey and Peter get married. Keith wasn’t even able to stop the proceedings. Peter’s father calls and asks Peter to hurry back with Keith. Thus the strangest honeymoon begins. Peter brings Francey back to Old Sharon to introduce his new bride to his stodgy father and lovely mother. 

As with any screwball comedy, every thing that can go wrong does. Peter’s dad assumes Francey is a floosie Keith’s picked up and he charges Peter to put an end of this. Too nervous to set his father straight, Peter winds up just stuttering and promising to do his father’s bidding.  Meanwhile the minute Peter’s former fiancée sets eyes on Francey, she’s out to get her.

Mishaps, cat fights and misunderstandings ensue and it’s all in good fun. Made in 1937, the film still delights, but if you judge it my today’s mores, you won’t be entertained. I loved the energy and innocence. Roger’s Francey is feisty and wise not letting misunderstandings fester or ferment. The film includes lovely scenes not only between the newlyweds but also between  Francey and his new mother-in-law. 

Le Doulos

Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1962 classic noir gangster film Le Doulous blew me away. Beinning simply with ex-con Maurice walking though a squalid neighborhood, it soon delivered its first of several completely surprising murders. Maurice visits his friend Gilbert, who gives him information and offers cash to tide him over with the promise of more. After Maurice asks Gilbert to borrow a gun, he turns the gun on his old friend. It’s the first of several betrayals and murders.

Maurice then grabs Gilbert’s cash and all the jewel’s he’s reworking and was going to fence. Before he’s out of the house, Maurice hears a car drive up and he scrambles to escape and stash the jewels and money. Nuttheccio and Armand, big time gangsters, were to get the jewels from Gilbert and when they see he’s dead. Maurice manages to flee and bury the loot.

Next thing we see is Maurice is at his girlfriend Thérèse’s apartment preparing to meet his crony Rémy to carry out their heist. Maurice and Rémy’s jewel heist fails with both Rémy and the victim killed and Maurice is shot and passes out. Selien visits Thérèse and brutally beats her to find out Maurice’s whereabouts. Somehow Maurice winds up at a friends home where a doctor is tending to his wound, while Selein appears to be double crossing him with the police.

Melville treats us to a well lit, dark gangster film that pays homage to American gangster films while exploring friendship, loyalty and betrayal. The plot is loaded with shocks and surprises till the last scenes. There isn’t one point that didn’t hold my attention.

The Criterion Collection DVD is now unavailable, but many libraries probably have it. Mine did. Besides the masterful film there are bonus items like two interviews with directors who began as Melville’s apprentices and an analysis of three pivotal scenes.

From these extrasI learned that Melville always had to be at war with some one on the set. He built an apartment cum studio and his apartment was decorated in a New York rather than Parisian style. He tried to make this film look as American as possible. On the first day of filming he’d say “Good Morning” to everyone working on the film then he’d announce that he would not be wasting time with these greetings in the days ahead. He had no time for that!

Memories of Melville’s Army of Shadows led me to find another film of his and I’m glad I did.

The Killers (1964)

I had to watch the 1964 version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. After all, it was in the same DVD set. I didn’t have great expectations, but this powerful film captivated me.

Starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, with Ronald Reagan in a smaller role, The Killers begins at a school for the blind. Two hit men enter looking for Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The rough up the blind secretary and plow their way into North’s class for mechanics. They shoot North dead and make their escape. The contrast between a school for the blind and ruthless criminals is powerful.

After killing North, Charlie Storm (Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) are on a training Charlie can’t help ruminating over why Johnny didn’t try to evade his murder. He completely accepted it. Johnny was so unlike every other victim. Why?

Another question is Who? Who paid Charlie and Lee $25K when they’d never been paid more than $10K for a hit. Again, why? Why so much?

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So Charlie and Lee switch trains in Chicago and go down to Miami and begin to find out all they can about Johnny North. They soon learn that Johnny was a race car driver, that he fell head over heels for Sheila (Dickinson), a beauty who loves racing and Johnny. She keeps her sugar daddy Micky Farmer. Wining and dining Sheila leaves Johnny ill prepared for the big race. Not only that Micky is in the stands and is not pleased with what he sees with his binoculars. Disaster strikes when Johnny loses control of his car and winds up losing.

It’s clear that Johnny should avoid Sheila at all costs, but he just can’t and she winds up entangling him in Micky’s plan to rob a mail truck that’s carrying a million bucks.

Though the story’s been told before and it’s all done in flashback, The Killer’s kept my attention. The characters are cold blooded, yet passionate. Not one is able to walk away from danger. They have to play the game out to the bloody end. This film has 1960’s cool and a gripping plot. I do recommend seeing both the 1946 and 1964 versions. While you’re at it check on the Tarkovsky short.

Fun Facts

  • The Killers (1964) was supposed to be a TV film, but it had too much violence and sex so it was released in theaters.
  • It was the only film with Ronald Reagan as a bad guy and he hated the film.
  • The director Don Siegel was supposed to direct the 1946 one.
  • Siegel wanted to call the film Johnny North, but the bean counters at Universal said no film with a direction like “North” ever made much money.
  • They shot the last scene first as was usual for a Universal film. Lee Marvin was dead drunk and came 5 hours late. Despite his state, he nailed the scene.
  • This version doesn’t contain a single line of dialog from the short story.

 

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.

Torn Curtain

Alfred Hitchcock’s Cold War thriller Torn Curtain (1966) stars Paul Newman and Julie and kept me engaged from start to finish. Newman plays nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong who’s at an academic conference with his assistant cum fiancée Sarah Sherman. Sarah keeps asking him to commit to a wedding date, but Michael brushes this away. He’s got something else on his mind.

Suddenly Michael tells her he’s going to Sweden and someone else can give his presentation. Sarah’s baffled and later learns that Michael’s going to Berlin. She follows him and he’s furious when he sees her on his plane.

Sarah’s arrival is a surprise to the East Germans who welcome Armstrong. They’re confused about what to do with her. They move forward with their plan and Armstrong announces at a news conference that he’s defecting. Sarah’s shocked.

Now what? She’s come to East Germany and discovered she knows nothing of her fiancé, who’s going to give American military secrets to the enemy.

Little does she know that Michael’s a double agent. Spies give him instructions on where to go to get information on his operation, which soon goes off track.

The film’s a fast-paced thriller which will keep you guessing. Reviewing some other blogs I’ve seen it’s gotten some criticism for not being emotionally convincing, but I was more than satisfied with the twists and turns of Sarah and Michael’s romance just as I was with those of the Cold War enemies’ chases. Great climatic scene in a theater.

Torn Curtain earned a thumbs up from me.

Swearing: None

Violence: A bit, but not so bloody.

Sex scenes: one, nothing too graphic.

 

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.