Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Clumsy and awkward, even Hitch himself said it was the work of a talented amateur. The 1956 remake is much more polished and Hollywood-ized causing many to prefer the original. You’ll hear my opinion after I see the remake. And you read it out loud. Because, you know, voices. Like many films that fall into the public domain, the audio and video quality suffers. I turned the sound all the way up and tolerated the pop and hisses. Also, I had some difficulty following which character was which. It became easier once that person was shot. Oh, spoiler alert.

The story, in a nutshell, is a family is on vacation and befriend a man who turns out to be a spy. He is shot and quickly tells mom about some super secret information in his hotel room. Dad finds it but British intelligence and bad guys are wise. M5 pressures mom and dad to give up the info but they won’t because the baddies have kidnapped their annoying little girl. So, Dad becomes an amateur sleuth to save the day.

Man, a little over the top with the British politeness thing. Lot’s of “Terribly Sorry” and “Not quite”’s of pre-WWII England. Not a mystery, exactly, because we pretty much know who the bad guys are. We don’t know their plan, but I must admit I’m not sure I recall what it was even now. This was Peter Lorre’s first English speaking role. When he met with Hitch he smiled and nodded through the meeting because he didn’t understand English. He learned his lines phonetically.

When comparing this film with his own 1956 remake he said this was “the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." Clearly rough but somewhat charming and definitely British, the second was a Hollywood production through and through. The Man Who Knew Too Much was likable but forgettable and sometimes hard to follow. Unless you find a copy of a fully restored version, consider skipping it. AMRU 2.5.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Rope (1948)

Two college friends, Brandon and Philip, kill a third because they feel he is inferior. It seems they had an old prep school headmaster (James Stewart) that put it into their heads that the rich elite have the right to do this. Then they invite said headmaster, dead David’s fiance and family, and others to an awkward dinner party to prove how clever they are. Turns out, not so clever.

Rope was an experiment for Hitchcock. Could he make the movie appear as if it was done in one 80 minute take? Turns out, he could. The cameras could hold just over ten minutes of film, so the movie is made up of ten takes between four and a half and ten minutes and carefully spliced together, the joints cleverly camouflaged. See Birdman. As the source material was a stage play and the dialog and acting style reflects this. After getting used to it, the movie flows rather well. But seriously, see Birdman.

Stewart was cast against type, being a sardonic academic with a suspicious mind. This bothered him, this being the era when actors complained about NOT being typecast. Joan Chandler was adorable as the dead boy’s best girl. Philip’s Farley Granger would later play a tennis pro in Strangers on a Train. Criss cross.

Hitch later dismissed his film as a stunt. He would cement his reputation for building tension using editing (see Psycho), and here he essentially didn’t edit at all. As each take was several minutes in length, any mistake or problem meant the whole piece had to be reshot. This makes for an exhausting and tense shoot. But seriously, see Psycho.

The movie was met with some controversy, not because of the murder, but because Philip and Brandon were totally gay! Not overtly, of course, but they totally were! Hitchcock always put together a complete, entertaining film. Not a masterpiece, but Rope is a very interesting watch. The ending was rather abrupt, and the side stories didn’t go anywhere, but definitely an entertaining watch. AMRU 3.5.

“You're quite a good chicken strangler as I recall.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Awful Truth (1937)

Jerry (Cary Grant) returns from a business trip in “Florida”, only he wasn’t really in Florida. With friends in attendance, he discovers that his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) isn’t home. It seems her car broke down and she had to spend the night at her swarthy singing instructor’s house. All perfectly innocent, except neither are too sure. After an argument, they agree to get a divorce, because that’s what you do. During the required waiting period, Lucy starts a relationship with big lunk Daniel (Ralph Bellamy) but Jerry can’t seem to stop bumping into them.

Classic Hollywood screwball comedy. Nobody does anything untoward but it’s hinted at quite a bit. I can complain and say The Awful Truth was overly formulaic. The ending was forced and it bore more than a passing resemblance to My Favorite Wife, made three years later with Randolph Scott in the Ralph Bellamy role. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used many of the same sets. But I think I’m experiencing rom-com fatigue.

There were some amusing scenes and overall it did its job, and this was the era when directors won Oscars for such films. It’s no coincidence that the earlier rom-coms I saw are rated higher and I may need to back off of them for a while. Unfortunately, I have one more sitting on the DVR. I’ll find something refreshing to watch before I see it. AMRU 3.

“They forgot to touch second.”

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is an alcoholic. His brother and his pretty girlfriend (Jane Wyman) try to help him, but when he is left to his own devices with a ten-spot, things go bad.

What does an alcoholic look like? Well, if you are in most movies of the 30’s to the 50’s, they were funny, harmless, frequently wore top hats, hiccuped a lot, and occasionally saw pink elephants. In The Lost Weekend, as in real life, they are well-intentioned, self destructive, rationalizing, and tragic. Also, not nearly as amusing as you’ve been led to believe.

This is my first film starring Jane Wyman I’ve seen. She was Mrs. Ronald Reagan at this time, but that wouldn’t last long. Ray Milland, having done a string of light comedies, wasn’t considered by many to be star material for an A picture, but the studio insisted. Milland, doubting himself, prepared by spending a night inside Bellevue Hospital. He would earn an Oscar. I was certain I had seen him in something else, but I don’t know what. Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay as an exploration of the life of Raymond Chandler after working with him on Double Indemnity. Chandler had an interesting relationship with the spirits.

The Lost Weekend is something of a departure for Billy Wilder. Not a comedy, and while it’s billed as Film-Noir, I don’t see it. It is a fascinating exploration of a tragic personality. Don means well but his demons intervene. If alcoholism has touched your family then this story will ring true. AMRU 4.
“We're both trying, Don. You're trying not to drink, and I'm trying not to love you.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Touch of Evil (1958)

A car carrying a rich old man and his hot young girlfriend, driving over the US-Mexican border, blows up killing them both. On the scene is Vargas (Charlton Heston), an educated, politically connected (totally non-rapist) Mexican police detective. He works with fat, sloppy American police captain Quinlan (Orson Welles) to solve the murder. At this time his hot anglo wife (Janet Leigh) starts being harassed by family members of the people Vargas has been prosecuting. Things get complicated.

This movie could be about finding the bomber, or about the crime family tormenting the hot Leigh, but it’s really about the culture clash between two nations so close to each other, and the prejudice that permeates their relationship. Quinlan is suspicious of Mexicans and disrespects Vargas, the Mexican crime family has a complicated relationship with America, and the Vargas’ themselves are torn between both worlds. All this in the late 50’s.

Heston agreed to the role because he thought Welles was going to direct. When he found out that the director hadn’t been selected yet, he insisted on Welles, and the studio agreed. It was Welles’ presence that also convinced Leigh to accept the roll, despite the low pay.

Upon completion the studio chopped up the film in editing. Welles was upset, and wrote a 58 page letter to the studio head. The version I saw was a recreation of Welles’ original vision, as can be determined from his letter.

The movie features Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke, McCloud) in an early role. Zsa Zsa earned a bit part by being the producer’s boyfriend. Marlene Dietrich had a small but important role, and if you blinked you’d miss Welles buddy Joseph Cotten’s cameo.

Touch of Evil is a brave film, confronting racism head on. It’ll be remembered as having a Mexican played by Red Blooded, US ‘Merican Charlton Heston with a US ‘Merican accent, but its message that citizens on both sides of the border can be despicable and honorable alike may have been lost otherwise. The difference between art and craft is that craft needs to know we are ready to accept change while art tells us we must. The problem with putting minorities in lead roles is that studios want established stars, and until there is a large pool of established leading man minorities, it is hard to get the studio on board with hiring them. Catch-22. Maybe, in some small way, Touch of Evil slightly acclimated 50’s audiences to considering a lead minority. Either way, putting an unknown Mexican in the lead may have resulted in the film not being made, or at least not seen very much. At any rate, I find it easy to forgive the whitewash casting because of the its progressive message. AMRU 4.
“She don’t look Mexican either.”

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

Milo, a bored rich kid, sits on the phone talking about how bored he is with his bored friend, when he notices a giant present for him in the other room. He pulls a lever and it turns into a tollbooth. With nothing better to do, he climbs into a toy car and drives into an animated world of adventure.

There he learns how the kingdom of letters (Dictionopolis) is feuding with the kingdom of numbers (Digitopolis), He travels to the Castle in the Air to rescue the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason. Along the way he meets a watchdog named Tick Tock, a “Whether” Man, a Spelling Bee, Faintly Macabre the “Which”, and a Mathemagician. Get the theme here?

Butch Patrick, you know, Eddie Munster, plays young Milo. The animated world contains a who’s who of 50’s and 60’s voice over actors, including Daws Butler, Hans Conried, June Foray, and of course Mel Blanc.

Finally Chuck Jones got the chance to do a feature film, and because of studio financial troubles it took forever to be released and wasn’t promoted. It’s no surprise that it wasn’t a success. He never got another opportunity.

The Phantom Tollbooth combines life lessons, amusing wordplay, and adventure. Maybe it has so many elements that it becomes muddled. Various characters and situations would benefit from more development and screen time. I can imagine a half hour TV series exploring every nook and cranny of this imaginative world. A big Chuck Jones fan, I was very happy to find this film, and enjoyed it. But maybe from high expectations, or from troubled production, I’m left feeling it falls short of great. AMRU 3.5.
“Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.”

Friday, May 13, 2016

Catch-22 (1970)

Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin) wants to be grounded so he tells the doctor that he is crazy. But by asking to be grounded he is proving that he is sane, as only a crazy person would want to continue flying dangerous missions. The other pilots are crazy because they want to fly, but they can't be grounded because they won't ask. But if they do, Catch-22.

Based on the Joseph Heller novel and as I understand, a fairly faithful rendition. I took my son's word. Reading books is hard. That's why I watch. The story is non-linear and must be watched to the end for it to make any sense. the screenplay was written by Buck Henry, who also wrote Mike Nichols' The Graduate. Again, I'll say it. So THAT'S why SNL kept having him appear.

Catch-22 is chuck full of familiar character actors. Bob Newhart, Jack Gilford, Norman Fell, Richard Benjamin, and even Art Garfunkel. Future heavies Martin Sheen and Jon Voight, plus heavy has-been Orson Welles. The first cinematic display of someone on a toilet included Martin Balsam (12 angry men, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and this episode of The Twilight Zone I just saw) and Anthony Perkins. The first time a toilet was shown was in Psycho, which also featured both men.

Because of it's very nature, the story cannot be described. There is an absurd, dreamlike quality, and the audience is forced to pay close attention to make sense of it all. Frequently background noise drowns out the dialog, but that's purely intentional. This is not a movie for everybody, but it was definitely a movie for me. AMRU 4. Arkin may be this country's greatest character actor.
"Whoo... That's some catch, that Catch-22.
It's the best there is."