Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Twelve movies

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

Station West (dir. Sidney Lanfield, 1948). One of the Criterion Channel’s Western noir offerings, with cowboy hats and horses instead of fedoras and getaway cars. Dick Powell comes into town as an undercover investigator and trouble finds him, in the form of Jane Greer and assorted locals. Greer, as Powell himself observes, changes in appearance from scene to scene. But watch for the moment when she reprises Kathie from Out of the Past, taking erotic pleasure in the spectacle of two men fighting. Also in town: Raymond Burr, Burl Ives, and Agnes Moorehead. ★★★★

*

The Seventh Cross (dir. Fred Zinneman, 1944). From the novel by Anna Seghers, which our household is now reading. It’s 1936, and seven men have escaped from a German concentration camp. The film follows one of them, George Heisler, an anti-Nazi machinist (Spencer Tracy), as he lives by his wits, weary and wary, trying to reach old friends who may no longer be trustworthy. Hume Cronyn, Signe Hasso, Agnes Moorehead, George Macready, and Jessica Tandy are among the (literally) supporting players in this suspenseful story of selflessness and solidarity under Nazism. ★★★★

*

The Bribe (dir. Robert Z. Leonard, 1949). All atmosphere, with a G-man (Robert Taylor) traveling to a Central American island to investigate the theft and resale of airplace engines. Once we’re in Exotica, we can stop thinking about engines and focus on Ava Gardner (café singer), John Hodiak (her husband), Charles Laughton (forever meandering, or lurking) and Vincent Price (who must be up to no good). Watch for the special effect that begins the film, when Gardner appears in a window. The final crowd scene brings the fireworks. ★★★★

*

Shadows in the Night (dir. Eugene J. Forde, 1944). Warner Baxter as Dr. Robert Ordway, the Crime Doctor, a role he played in a series of low-budget films. A woman troubled by nightmares (Nina Foch) rings the Crime Doctor’s bell at three in the morning. To solve the mystery behind her dreams, the doctor travels to a seaside estate, where various people enter and exit various rooms. The only reason to see this movie: Nina Foch. ★★

*

Loophole (dir. Harold D. Schuster, 1954). A bank teller (Barry Sullivan) discovers a $49,900 shortage in his till, and he and his wife (Dorothy Malone, not yet blonde) find their lives spinning out of control. With Don Beddoe as an unassuming thief and Charles McGraw as a maniacally vengeful investigator for the bank’s bonding company. A surprisingly moving moment: Dorothy Malone weeps amid the chaos of a tiny apartment. Plenty of desk sets, file cabinets, telephones, typewriters: whatever the plot, I could watch stuff like this all day. ★★★

*

A little Anatole Litvak

The Long Night (1947). Henry Fonda leads the cast as Joe Adams, a war vet and blue-collar worker whose story is told as he holes up in his apartment, with police surrounding the building. The bigger performances here are from Barbara Bel Geddes in her film debut as Joe’s girlfriend Jo Ann and Vincent Price as Maximilian, nightclub magician and malignant narcissist. Did Maximilian and Jo Ann ever — that’s the question that torments Joe. Strong cinematography by Sol Polito — darkness, glare, staircases, crowds — adds much to an already compelling story. ★★★★

The Journey (1959). November 1956: with Russian forces occupying Hungary, a freedom fighter attempts to leave the country with thirteen international travelers. To protect him is of course to endanger everyone else, leading to moments of moral dilemma and, later, to open debate. Yul Brenner (a Russian military commander), Deborah Kerr (an English aristocrat), and Jason Robards Jr. (the freedom fighter) are the principals, with the ghosts of the King and Anna hovering over Russian-British relations. In the supporting cast: Anne Jackson, E.G. Marshall, and Robert Morley — and watch for a nearly silent Anouk Aimée. ★★★★

*

House on Haunted Hill (dir. William Castle, 1959). Vincent Price plays a millionaire who invites five people to spend a night in a haunted house — $10,000 for each person who lasts the night. Considered as an ordinary movie, House on Haunted Hill fails spectacularly. But considered as a bad movie, it succeeds spectacularly, with every cliché of horror — a creaking door, a trick wall, a head in a box, a walking skeleton — present and accounted for, inviting laughter rather than shock. The best line: “I’ve had enough of your spook talk!” ★★★★

*

The Booksellers (dir. D.W. Young, 2019). Books, rare ones, and the people who sell and buy them. This documentary is a visual feast, spine after spine, cover after cover, shelf after shelf. But the longer it went on, the more I could feel books turning into dollars, and shelves and boxes turning into joyless claustrophobia (just wait for the drawer of purses). The best moments belong to Fran Lebowitz, talking about bookstores and reading and not having the money to buy anything rare. ★★★★

*

High Heels (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 1991). A film-star mother, a daughter, a drag artist who performs as the mother, a husband, a lover, another husband, a police investigator: those are some of the identities that shift about in this variation on the “woman’s picture,” a story of love, murder, and doubling. (Like shoes, people come in pairs.) Marisa Paredes and Victoria Abril (two Almodóvar regulars) star. My favorite scene: a spontaneous confession on live television, with a sign-language interpreter following along. ★★★★

*

Hollywood Shuffle (dir. Robert Townsend, 1987). Robert Townsend stars as Bobby Taylor, a young Black actor trying to make it in the movies. In doing so, he comes up against white producers who want him to speak such lines as “I ain’t be got no weapon!” Filled with satire of everything from Amadeus to Blaxpolitation to Eddie Murphy to Indiana Jones to Rambo to Siskel and Ebert (“I disagree, homeboy”). I loved this movie, whose broad, sharp comedy reminded me of In Living Color, whose Keenen Ivory Wayans co-wrote the screenplay and appears in two roles. ★★★★

*

Mark of the Vampire (dir. Tod Browning, 1935). “What’s that, Tod? Lionel Barrymore — for a vampire movie, with Lugosi and Donald Meek? Sure, I’m in. And say, let’s find a spot for the Borland kid.” ★★★★


[From Mark of the Vampire. Carol Borland as Luna. Click for a scarier view.]

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

comments: 7

Fresca said...

"Plenty of desk sets...: whatever the plot, I could watch stuff like this all day."
I so enjoy your take on things, Michael.

MORE PENCILS!

I loved The Booksellers, which I found through you.
I know what you mean about how icky the commercial side of the trade can be,
but oddly, when I watched the movie, that didn't strike me at all--
I only felt a kinship with the booksellers, even though the books I put out at the thrift store sell for .99--4.99

I agree, Fran Liebowitz was the best of all.

Fresca said...

*Lebowitz*

Michael Leddy said...

Fresca, I saw your second comment first and thought that I had gotten it wrong. (I used to know a Liebowitz, so it would not be surprising.)

I wish the movie had let us see her bookshelves. But I can imagine her: “No shelves. Enough with the shelves.”

J D Lowe said...

I watched Booksellers over the weekend and left with the impression that a movie could be made just around FL. To me her most memorable quote was something like, "If I'm walking down the street and see a book in a trashcan, I have the same reaction as if I'd seen a human head".

Michael Leddy said...

That trademark FL understatement. :)

You’ll be happy to know that there is such a movie: Public Speaking (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2010). Great stuff.

Josh said...

House on Haunted Hill was also given the Rifftrax/MST3K treatment during a live show a few years back .

The skeleton reveal is top notch comedy.

Michael Leddy said...

Oh my. Thanks for the link. There are some excerpts on YouTube — from a TV version? And yes, that skeleton is hilarious.