Monday, July 6, 2020

Twelve movies

[One to four stars. Four sentences each. No spoilers.]

Clash by Night (dir. Fritz Lang, 1952). You know Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) is trouble: the first time we see her, one morning in a Monterey café, she’s drinking coffee and doing shots. You know Earl Pfeiffer is trouble: he’s an unashamed (and married) misogynist who’s always hanging around Mae. You know Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas) is in for trouble; he’s an uber-responsible type who’s smitten with Mae and best friends with Earl. The excellent actors in this often seamy story are undercut by an overwrought screenplay, adapted from Clifford Odets’s play. ★★★


Pitfall (dir. Andre de Toth, 1948). What a self-reinvention Dick Powell undertook, going from the wholesome “juvenile” of 42nd Street to a convincing Philip Marlowe. Here he plays a character who looks back to Walter Neff (Double Indemnity) and forward to Scottie Ferguson (Vertigo): John Forbes, an insurance agent who becomes involved with Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a model whose boyfriend is in prison. Raymond Burr, playing a detective obsessed with Stevens, does his best to channel Laird Cregar. The only problem with this film: you have to believe that John Forbes would prefer Mona Stevens to his own wife Sue, who’s played by none other than Jane Wyatt. ★★★★


To the Ends of the Earth (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1948). Dick Powell again, in the documentary-style story of a narcotics investigator whose hunt for opium smugglers takes him from California to China to Egypt to Lebanon to Cuba. Good points: a powerful scene early on (chained laborers sliding from a ship to their death), a nifty smuggling trick, and a spirited message of international cooperation against the drug trade. Bad points: a lack of clarity, a myriad of characters. Robert Stevenson must have been a director for all seasons: he also directed Jane Eyre and a slew of Disney films — Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, among others. ★★★


Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (dir. Frank Capra, 1936). Our household had never sampled this bit of Capra-corn, which plays like a rehearsal for the superior Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In each movie Jean Arthur is a savvy city gal who ends up falling for the naïf she’s supposed to be in charge of: here, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) tallow-factory proprietor, poet, and, all of a sudden, multi-millionaire. But Lordy: the crowd scenes are like Norman Rockwell paintings or Saturday Evening Post covers, which, come to think of it, amount to the same thing. Among all the downtrodden folk looking for some help from Mr. Deeds, not one face that isn’t white. ★★★


Mädchen in Uniform (dir. Leontine Sagan, 1931). Eros vs. authority at a boarding school for girls. Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck) is a beautiful, compassionate teacher, every girl’s crush. Manuela (Herta Thiele) is a new student whose declaration of love for her teacher precipitates a crisis at the school. This celebrated film was of particular interest to our household right now because of our plunge into novels from Weimar Germany, with authoritarianism rising then and now. ★★★★


From the MGM series Crime Does Not Pay

Wikipedia lists thirty-four short films in this series. There may be more. Between TCM and YouTube, I found three. And yes, they should get stars.

Think It Over (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1938). “There’s either a pyromaniac or a professional torch in this town!” It’s professionals, two feral firesetters and a dapper front man who calls on struggling businesses. I like the breakfast scene, with a furniture-store owner eating grapefruit as his daughter hits him up for $100 to join a social club and attend its dances. Tourneur’s art comes through in the fire scene, all flashlights and shadows, as celluloid burns and an arsonist (Dwight Frye, perhaps best known as Renfield from Dracula) struggles at a high window. ★★★★

Know Your Money (dir. Joe Newman, 1940). Counterfeit tens are turning up all over town. Trace the paper and you’re on your way to solving the crime. Scenes in a tobacco shop provide satisfying glimpses of material culture and retail density. Watch also for William Edmunds (Mr. Martini from It’s a Wonderful Life) as an engraver. ★★★★

[Retail density. In the glass case, lower left: Bull Durham, Chesterfield, Philip Morris. Frank Orth is the tobacconist; Edward Hearn, the customer. Is that a cigar cutter on the counter? Click for a larger view.]

Don’t Talk (dir. Joe Newman, 1942). “One or two of you might have dropped an idle word that was picked up by some big-eared bartender or bellhop.” Or perhaps by a waitress in some cafe, say, the Elite Cafe, no accent, right across the street from the plant where sabotage destroyed a shipment of manganese, and where Beulah the waitress (Gloria Holden) is doing some funny stuff with the menu in the window. Dwight Frye is here again as a saboteur. Watch also for Arthur Space (Doc Weaver from television’s Lassie) as another saboteur. ★★★★


Stranger on the Third Floor (dir. Boris Ingster, 1940). Thank you, TCM: this is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. It may be the ultimate combination of light comedy, film noir, and German expressionism — also the only such combination, all in a B-movie barely more than an hour long. Peter Lorre is the nominal star as The Stranger, but the real stars are John McGuire (a John Garfield type, I’d say) and Margaret Tallichet, whose brief career in movies ended with her marriage to William Wyler. Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography and Van Nest Polglase’s sets contribute mightily to this film’s deep weirdness — and greatness. ★★★★


The Lady from Shanghai (dir. Orson Welles, 1947). Rough and ready seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) signs on for a yachting trip with disabled lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), his wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth, then married to Welles), and law partner George Grimsby (Glenn Anders), and a plot to fake a murder develops. I hadn’t seen this film in many years — all I could remember was the spectacular Fun House finale. This time around I was much more alert to human relations: Bannister’s sexual incapacity (intensifed by his creepy habit of addressing his wife as “Lover”), Elsa’s masculine authority (captain’s cap and jacket!), and the unmistakable suggestion that Grimsby, Bannister’s partner (partner?), is gay. Welles’s seaman, like Odysseus, lives to tell the tale (no spoiler: he’s the narrator). ★★★★


The Eyes of Orson Welles (dir. Mark Cousins, 2018). Did you know that Orson Welles was an accomplished artist, and that he drew and painted all his life? The filmmaker Mark Cousins has made a painstaking, brilliant documentary of Welles’s life and work, tying together places, films, and artworks. One of many details that took me by surprise: Welles used to tell friends visiting Chicago that they must visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms in the Art Institute. Cousins speculates, with photographs and stills as evidence, that those rooms influenced the design of interiors in Welles’s films. ★★★★


#UNFIT: The Psychology of Donald Trump (dir. Dan Partland, 2020). We caught the July Fourth weekend online screening. The psychopathology of our president, with insights into the ape brain, autocratic strategies (e.g., say it three times and it’s true), and malignant narcissism. The film begins with Trump*’s first day in office and closes with the pandemic. The last word, spoken by George Conway: “demented,” pointing to matters that the filmmakers can, I suppose, only hint at — Trump*’s declining intellectual and physical abilities. ★★★★

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

comments: 8

Fresca said...

Is this an unusually good series of reviews? It feels like it.

The idea of big Orson Welles enjoying the miniature rooms makes me smile.
But then, they are like stage sets, so why not.

I'd never put it together before, but possibly those rooms were an early influence on me--showing up in things like my and red-hair-girl doll tableaux.

Michael Leddy said...

I think I tend to pick good ones. :) My hunch is that if I were to look back, I’d find that it’s mostly new movies that get only two stars.

The four-star reviews for the short movies are a little tongue-in-cheek, but evaluated as examples of their kind, I’d say that they deserve four, really. But are they equals of The Lady from Shanghai? No!

I like the room of little rooms — one of the real treasures of the Art Institute, crowded every time I’ve been there. Not crowded and also a treasure: the library. Just beautiful, and there’s always an exhibit to see.

Frex said...

I was unclear—I meant that your reviews themselves seem especially well-written here, not that the movies seem better.
Not that they’re not always well-written, just that these seem sparklier.
Do you think so?
At any rate, I always enjoy your movie round-ups. Thanks!

Michael Leddy said...

I don’t know if there’s a difference. (Let the reader decide.) But I do think that the more I write, the looser I get. Not morally but imaginatively. So maybe that shows here.

Fresca said...

For real, maybe that is it. You are warming up to the form.

Michael Leddy said...

Or it to me. :)

I’m going to mention sources in future posts. All the movies here are from our household’s usual sources: the Criterion Channel, TCM, and YouTube.

Zhoen said...

Loved Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet. Got to look up the rest of his noir films.

Michael Leddy said...

YouTube has several. If you have the Criterion Channel, they now have Station West, a noir western. Now I think I need to see him in a musical. :)