Monday, April 5, 2021

Twelve movies

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

The Glass Wall (dir. Maxwell Shane, 1953). A Hungarian survivor of Nazi camps, Peter Kaban (Vittorio Gassman) arrives in New York as a stowaway, where his sole hope of not being deported is to jump ship and find the American serviceman whose life he saved and can vouch for him, a guy who said he played clarinet in Times Square. A gripping story of life on the run, with Kaban as both the hunter and the hunted. There’s a touching moment with a Hungarian burlesque dancer (Robin Raymond), and Gloria Grahame gives a great performance as a coat-thief and unexpected love interest: dig her monologue about working in a shoelace factory. You’ll have to watch to the end to understand the title. ★★★★

*

99 River Street (dir. Phil Karlson, 1953). A superior noir, whose events play out in a single night. John Payne plays an ex-fighter who drives a cab and hopes to own a gas station someday. When his life spins out of control, a dispatcher pal (Frank Faylen) and an aspiring actress (Evelyn Keyes) help him put things together. Brutal fight scenes, in and out of the ring, and a host of shady characters: Jay Adler, Peggie Castle, Brad Dexter, and the feral Jack Lambert. ★★★★

*

The Scarf (dir. E.A. Dupont, 1951). An escapee from an asylum for the criminally insane (John Ireland) seeks to figure out if he committed the crime for which he was convicted. This ambitious effort scatters in several directions, from a philosophical dialogue between the escapee and a learned desert recluse (James Barton, in a great role) to a sojourn in the desert with a singing waitress (Mercedes McCambridge) to a slapstick fight in a bar. The story becomes, finally, about choosing between heteronormative desire and intergenerational desert bromance (yes, really). Best scene: the ultra-creepy psychiatrist (Emlyn Williams) meets the waitress. ★★★

*

Sudden Fear (dir. David Miller, 1952). A famous playwright (Joan Crawford) and an aspiring actor (Jack Palance) marry, and already I’m afraid. The couple’s happy life in San Francisco is complicated by the unexpected arrival of the past, in the form of Gloria Grahame. Great suspense, with steep staircases, a little mechanical dog, and lots to think about regarding plots and scripts and performances (great ones). Would pair well with Cast a Dark Shadow (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1955). ★★★★

*

Midnight Lace (dir. David Miller, 1960). Dumb luck: we didn’t know we were about to watch another movie from the director of Sudden Fear, with strong overtones of that movie and Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Doris Day and Rex Harrison are Kit and Anthony Preston, a power couple in London, she an heiress, he a corporate executive. Someone is telephoning and threatening to kill Kit, but who, and why? A great performance from Day as an increasingly desperate but resourceful victim-to-be, and fine supporting performances from Myrna Loy as Kit’s feisty Aunt Bea, and John Williams (from Dial M) representing Scotland Yard. ★★★★

*

Julie (dir. Andrew L. Stone, 1956). More dumb luck: we didn’t know that we were going to be watching another movie with Doris Day as a woman in danger. No mystery here: the danger to Julie Benton comes from her obsessively jealous, violent husband (Louis Jourdan). At times the movie feels like a prescient PSA in its explication of the realities of domestic violence: the law, as a police detective says, can do little in the absence of evidence. The ending has become the stuff of spoof, but considered on its own terms, it’s wildly suspenseful and ahead of its time. ★★★★

*

The Verdict (dir. Don Siegel, 1946). After sending an innocent man to his execution, a police inspector (Sydney Greenstreet) is determined to show up the colleague who has taken his place in Scotland Yard (George Coulouris, with an improbable mustache). Set in 1890s London, the story is ostensibly a vehicle for Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, but there’s little chemistry between them in this locked-room murder mystery. Greenstreet looks tired, and Lorre skirts around the edges of the story, out late, drunk. The solution to the mystery requires that disbelief be hung by its thumbs. ★★

*

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (dir. Laura Israel, 2015). I greatly admire Robert Frank’s photography — my copy of The Americans is many years old. But I found this documentary exhausting and unsatisfying, with fleeting image after fleeting image, all to the accompaniment of a largely irrelevant musical soundtrack. Frank is a benign but curmudgeonly presence, living with enormous personal loss, giving up little to the filmmaker’s camera. This documentary made me miss the patient close-reading of photographs typical of a Ken Burns project, and that’s saying something. ★★

*

My Favorite Year (dir. Richard Benjamin, 1982). “I’m not an actor; I’m a movie star!” It’s 1954, and a hard-drinking, swashbuckling Errol Flynn type, Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), is to appear on King Kaiser’s Comedy Cavalcade (i.e., Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows). Young Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), who idolizes Swann, vows to keep the errant star on the straight and narrow. The bromance and feel-goodism that take over the movie leave me cold, but the scenes of writers and actors at work are a delight. Watch that cable. ★★★

*

Dangerous Crossing (dir. Joseph M. Newman, 1953). Meet the Bowmans, Ruth and John (Jeanne Crain and Carl Betz), newlyweds on an ocean liner. Mr. B. disappears, and no one can attest that he was ever on board. So think of this movie as as variation on The Lady Vanishes. Its strong point: the way it plausibly places everyone, from a fellow passenger to the ship’s doctor, under suspicion. ★★★★

*

The Whistler (dir. William Castle, 1944). A wealthy executive pays for a hit man to “remove” someone but soon has to reconsider the deal. This low-budget movie (based on a radio show) has vaguely acceptable acting, bare-bones sets, and a clever but ridiculous plot whose twists come via telegrams. One surprising moment: when the camera pulls back, a little corner that looks like a cheap stand-in for a restaurant turns out to be a little corner in a larger set. Watch for Gloria Stuart, Old Rose in Titanic. ★★

*

Road House (dir. Jean Negulesco, 1948). What a road house: it has living quarters for its manager, a bowling alley, and a bar and grille (sic) named Spare Room. The owner, Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark), has hired Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) as a singer-pianist, but she has eyes for Jefty’s pal, road house manager Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde), who’s had eyes for Susie the cashier (Celeste Holm). The movie looks at first like a conventional love triangle (or rectangle) — but don’t forget, it has Richard Widmark. My favorite moment: Ida Lupino sing-speaks “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road”). ★★★★

[Sources: the Criterion Channel, TCM, and YouTube.]

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

comments: 2

The Subliminal Mr Dunn said...

I'm ashamed to say, Michael, I haven't seen any of the films or even heard of them! I knew most of the actors, though.
The only thing I can offer in return is a recent (2005) movie by Wes Anderson: Red Eye, starring Rachel MacAdams and Cillian Murphy. I could see even then that Murphy was going to become a big star (Peaky Binders).

Michael Leddy said...

Aside from My Favorite Year, these aren’t especially well known — I’d never heard of them before watching. I’ve liked every Wes Anderson movie I’ve seen (except Rushmore), but I haven’t heard of this one. I’ll keep it in mind.