Monday, November 29, 2010

Vertigo (1958) -- Alfred Hitchcock

Shortly after acrophobia forces police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) to resign from the force, he gets a call out of the blue from an old friend, Gavin Elster, asking for an odd favor. Elster thinks his wife may be going insane; he wants Scottie to tail her. Though skeptical, Scottie accepts the job and soon finds himself enmeshed in a bizarre mystery. Something certainly is wrong with beautiful Madeline Elster (Kim Novak); she drives aimlessly around San Francisco, goes to an old cemetery, spends hours at the art gallery staring at the portrait of a woman, and rents a room at an old hotel where she comes to be alone. When Scottie reports back the husband divulges more informationMadeline is obsessed with a long dead ancestor named Carlotta, and may even believe she is Carlotta reincarnated. Elster says he fears his wife may mimic Carlotta and kill herself. Later, Madeline jumps into the bay in an apparent suicide attempt, but Scottie comes to her rescue.

Moved by Madeline's vulnerability and beguiled by her beauty, Scottie begins to fall in love. He tells her he is now "responsible" for her safety. As he tries to unravel her mysterious episodes and strange dreams, a trip to an old Spanish mission ends in disaster when Madeline breaks away from Scottie's grasp and apparently falls to her death. Scottie is devastated. Racked with guilt and grief, he falls into a deep depression and experiences a mental breakdown. But that's just half the story.

Part of Saul Bass' innovative Title Sequence.
Vertigo is hard to classify. There is a crime, but we pay little attention to it. It is part ghost story, part love story, part psychological thriller, and most of all an examination of obsessionScottie's, not Madeline's. Hitchcock's masterful use of symmetry and pace affects wonderment in the audience. Like Scottie, we can't quite understand what exactly is going on. It is a film told in two parts, bookended by two sequences set high up: a dramatic rooftop chase in San Francisco that introduces us to Scottie and his vertigo, and the climactic second visit to a mission tower, where the principal characters come face to face with a nun and tragedy. Scottie undergoes a complicated emotional journey along the way. Stewart captures the character's tortured soul beautifully. You see a dark man, whose obsession transforms him into a brute, leaving you wondering if he is perhaps mad himself. He is Hitchcock's most twisted character.

"One final thing I have to do... and then I'll be free of the past."  Scottie

The film legitimately begs different interpretations. Can you take everything you see at face value? Scottie may have plunged to his death in the initial scene, leaving what follows a man's strange dying thoughts. Does the second half reflect the ramblings of a unbalanced mind, as Scottie sits catatonic in a mental ward? All these scenarios are plausible. For Hitchcock then, the self-proclaimed "master of suspense," Vertigo marks his most playful; he leaves the audience guessing and tantalized.        

Scottie clings to a gutter in the exciting opening rooftop sequence.
Throughout, Hitchcock incorporates the City of San Francisco, with its fascinating architecture, and its unique topography, history  and setting, as the moody canvas for the story. Long-time Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks served as cinematographer. Besides the city itself, Burks and Hitchcock treat us to a creepy scene in a forest of Giant Redwoods and a gorgeous stop along the majestic California coastline. The Pacific surf crashes into the rocks as the two lovers share their first kiss at a lone cypress tree. Visually, the film is exciting.

What Makes Vertigo Special:

Madeline gets ready to  jump.
Jimmy Stewart's convincing performance may be the best of his career, and that's saying something. We believe he's a broken man who has suffered a terrible loss. Two scenes stand out: Stewart's anguished face at the inquest, listening to the coroner's condemnation, and his barely controlled rage during the finale. The 1950's was a great decade for Stewart, when he produced his most nuanced and riveting characters. The Naked Spur, Rear Window, and Anatomy of a Murder, along with Vertigo showed an actor at the top of his game.

Kim Novak shines in the second half as a woman who surrenders her own identity for the man she loves. Her desperate terror in the last climb is the best acting of her career. She manages to elicit sympathy for a character we shouldn't care for.     

Composer Bernard Herrmann's haunting score is magnificent, and  as perfectly effective as any heard in film. He shows how important music can be to a film, especially the memorable way he uses horns at just the right places to keep you on edge. 

Saul Bass did the innovative title and dream sequences, showing how graphic design could rope in an audience. His swirling pinwheel of colors and falling silhouette perfectly captured the unsettling nature of the film, especially when matched with Herrmann's music. Bass would continue to impress, with Anatomy of Murder, North by Northwest, PsychoSpartacus, and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World among his memorable credits.   

Inside Story

An apparition of Madeline, one of the most famous shots in the film.
Hitchcock used Herrmann on seven films, the most famous being Psycho, where his use of strings to accompany Janet Leigh's stabbing death in the shower is memorable and unique.

Costume designer Edith Head and Hitchcock gave Madeleine's clothing an eerie appearance. Her trademark grey suit was chosen for its color because they thought it seemed odd for a blonde woman to be wearing all grey.   

Major Awards: 
  • Nominated for Best Art Direction and Set Direction, and for Best Sound.
  • National Film Registry.
Other Films by Hitchcock:
  • The 39 Steps 1939
  • Rebecca 1940
  • Shadow of a Doubt 1943
  • Notorious 1946
  • Strangers on a Train 1951
  • Rear Window 1954
  • North by Northwest 1959
  • Psycho 1960
  • The Birds 1963
  • Frenzy 1972

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) -- William Wyler

This is a special and memorable film. Still the best of Hollywood’s Coming Home films and among the greatest American produced ensemble pieces, there is good reason why The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Part of it was timing. Released just after the Second World War in 1946, it perfectly captured the nation’s jumbled mix of emotions: relief, angst, hopefulness, and confusion. But most of the explanation for its acclaim lies in its superb craftsmanship.

Homecoming at Butch's.
The story centers on three ordinary veterans. Recently discharged, they form a bond as they share a flight back to their Mid-western hometown, Boone City. Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), and sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) share something else--the uncertainty all veterans face when trying to readjust back into civilized society, and the frightful question: are the best years of their lives behind them?

The men are from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, and except for the common experience of war and their fears of the future, none of these people would likely have become friends. Of course, that’s part of the beauty of the film. Circumstances have thrown them together, for better or worse. How Director William Wyler makes them interact—together and with family and friends—and what’s in store for them in a post-war world, is the heart of the story. And Wyler tells that story in a lean, honest style that surely touches every viewer, be they a veteran themselves or someone who has lost sleep praying that a family member return home safely from some overseas conflict.   

Homer has the most difficult task, having lost both hands when his ship was sunk. He now wears two hooks. “I can dial telephones, I can drive a car, I can even put nickels in the jukebox. I'm all right,” he explains, “but... well, you see, I've got a girl.” Homer doesn’t want to be a burden to Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), the girl he planned to marry, and at first pushes her away. Feeling self-conscious, he imagines he only engenders pity. Russell, a real vet with no previous acting experience, is remarkable in a sensitive performance.
In a film loaded with great dialog, one of the best exchanges occurs shortly after the men arrive home. Fred and Al watch expectantly from a cab Homer’s uneasy reunion with Wilma and his family. They see Wilma rush to hug Homer, but he stands stiff and awkward in her embrace. Fred doesn’t notice and merely shakes his head, saying, "You gotta hand it to the Navy. They sure trained that kid how to use those hooks." Al, more observant, catches the moment and replies, "They couldn't train him to put his arms around his girl, or to stroke her hair." 

That exchange is typical of Robert Sherwood’s perfectly paced and understated screenplay. It contains no hint of melodrama, just everyday speech and emotion that puts a lump in your throat. Another lump comes when Al arrives home to surprise his family. He motions for his children to keep quiet. His wife Milly, played with grace by Myrna Loy, is in the kitchen with her back to the room, talking over her shoulder. She suddenly and instinctively knows that her husband is home. She turns abruptly, they lock eyes, and no words are necessary. The viewer knows these two are deeply in love.
Homer and Wilma have a moving exchange. 
One of the hallmarks of the film is its open and honest treatment of disabilities. In one particularly moving moment Homer removes his prosthetics to show Wilma how helpless he is without them. He can manage to wriggle into his pajama top, but he can’t button it.

Al is the most financially secure of the three friends. He returns to his pre-war job as a bank executive. It is a good life but everything has changed. His children have grown and he quickly finds that the nation is tired of war and wants to move on. The bank cares little that a loan applicant served his country. What matters is what kind of collateral he brings to the table.

Perhaps the character that most of the 1946 audience related to best is Fred. He is from the wrong side of the tracks and comes home to a dead-end job as a soda jerk, the same one he held before the war. With no better prospects in sight he also must deal with a philandering wife who’s not satisfied with his $32.50 weekly salary. He is miserable. Complicating matters is his growing affection for Al’s pretty daughter Peggy, played by Teresa Wright.

In World War II servicemen hung pinups of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth in their quarters, but it was women like Wright’s Peggy that they wanted to come home to and marry and have children. She is young, beautiful, innocent, and vulnerable. Wright burst onto the Hollywood scene five years earlier with an astounding record of early success, garnering nominations for best supporting actress in each of her first three films (she won for Mrs. Miniver). Best Years was her sixth film and she is stunning.

Dana Andrews as Fred and Teresa Wright as Peggy.

The second scene at Butch's occurs later when Al asks Fred to stay away from Peggy. He likes Fred, but sees no future in it. Besides he's married and Peggy is too young to know what she's getting into. It is a father protecting his daughter. It is a tense scene with the emotions just under the surface. The conversation here is direct and painful. At one point Fred is unable to look Al in the eye and stares vacantly at the tabletop. Already relying on shaky self-esteem, he understands that Al doesn’t think he’s good enough for Peggy. Facing a hard sobering truth, Fred can’t escape the fact that his own life is a mess. Al, a decent and fine man in his own right, feels like a heel, leaving the viewer sympathizing with both characters.

Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland use deep focus photography to close this scene with a remarkable shot of Fred in the far background, calling Peggy from a corner phone booth to break it off. In the foreground, Al pretends to listen to Homer playing the piano with his hooks, but his attention is on Fred—just like the viewer’s. Because everyone has either made such a call or been on the receiving end of one, the scene is particularly personal, poignant, and effective. 
Another memorable scene has Fred planning to leave town to find other work after he has been fired from the drugstore. Without Peggy he has no reason to stay in Boone City. He walks dejectedly through an airfield as he waits for his transport. It is littered with abandoned bombers. Like their pilots, the machines are no longer needed and are ready for the scrap heap. Fred climbs into the nose bubble of a B-17 and momentarily goes into a trance, again reliving the horrors of war. Nine-time Oscar nominee Hugo Friedhofer wrote the film score, which here is appropriately dramatic.

The film ends with a marriage and the promise of another. Homer has accepted Wilma's love, and the entire cast gathers for the ceremony. Again, Director Wyler works wonders with misdirection and deep focus photography. As the wedding couple exchange vows, and Homer deftly slips the ring on Wilma's finger using his hooks, Fred and Peggy gaze at each other across the room, oblivious to what else is happening. By now Fred has a new job and is divorced. The young couple move to embrace and kiss. Knowing that they'll face a tough life ahead they profess their love for one another.  
The success and effectiveness of the film is more than the sum of its parts. It draws the viewer in completely, giving the sensation of watching real people instead of actors, struggling with everyday problems. The acting throughout is outstanding. March and Russell won Oscars but any of the leads could have. It is Andrews’ best performance. Number 37 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films, it belongs higher. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Innocents (1961) - Jack Clayton

The story begins ordinarily enough. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is hired by a negligent uncle to act as governess for his orphaned nephew and niece, Miles and Flora, who live in an isolated county estate. Giddens is inexperienced but enthusiastic. The uncle tells her that in accepting the position she assumes full responsibility for their upbringing--he does not want contacted. It's a strange arrangement, and a wiser person might decline, but Giddens does not.

Both children initially are precocious and sweet, if a little odd; they speak well beyond their years. The job takes an ominous turn when Miles is expelled from school for bringing "injury to others." Soon, the children begin to act peculiarly, and strange apparitions of supposedly dead people and whispered voices have Giddens wondering if the place is haunted.

She learns more from Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. The previous governess committed suicide after her abusive lover Quint, the valet, was found dead. Miles had worshiped the man.  

Miss Giddens slowly becomes unhinged.
Based on Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw, Clayton fashioned one of the best ghost stories ever filmed. More psychologically disturbing than frightening, it is a finely crafted film that leaves the viewer confused as to what is actually happening. Is the mansion haunted, or is it all in Giddens' head? Are the children some times possessed by the spirits of the family's previous caretakers, or are they just having devilish fun with the woman? Kerr called it her finest performance, and that's saying something. 

Miss Giddens is a strange woman in her own right, perhaps unstable. In the first scene she seems overly infatuated with the uncle, and we learn that she is the daughter of a parson, so likely has led a repressed life. We also learn that she has an imagination. Maybe she is susceptible to the power of suggestion. In any case, she seems too attached to the children for just having met them, especially the boy Miles. In one mildly disturbing scene the boy gives her a hug and an extended kiss on the lips. She recoils, feeling that someone other than Miles was kissing her. In perhaps the scariest scene Giddens plays hide and seek with the children. As she stands behind a curtain, a man suddenly appears outside the window staring at her. By her description, he is Quint. 

There is another scene that quickens your pulse, an extended journey by Giddens through the mansion in the dark, with just candles to light the way. Giddens has heard something: disturbing whispers and laughter. Director Clayton leaves most of scene without background music. You hear the occasional creaky floorboard, an un-oiled hinge, and just Kerr's footsteps. Kerr was an actress who used her eyes to great effect. Here and elsewhere in the film she registers real terror.  

Giddens eventually comes to believe that the dead couple may be trying to possess the children to continue their relationship. At times the children laugh almost maniacally and can't be relied upon to tell the truth; sometimes saying they make things up. It seems all too much for Miss Giddens, who is desperately trying to protect the children.     

Freddie Francis was cinematographer and his sharp black and white camerawork is often eerily lit and full of oppressive shadows. The set decoration is also terrific, the big Victorian mansion has a Gothic appearance. 

Miles with Quint's face looking hauntingly over his shoulder.
Clayton was fresh off a big hit with the 1959 film Room at the Top. This film is 180 degrees different. He adds little touches to enhance the atmosphere of creepiness: weird bird calls, a garden statue with a beetle in its mouth (perhaps influencing Silence of the Lambs), and an appropriately spooky score. His pacing is highly effective, with the tension building until the unsettling climax, which stills leaves the viewer asking questions. Truman Capote and William Archibald wrote the screenplay.

What Makes The Innocents Special:

The uncertainty of the film is wonderful. This is an adult horror story that makes you think.
The performances of the two children, Martin Stephens as Miles and Pamela Franklin as Flora are excellent, considerably better than what child actors typically manage. It was Franklin's first role. She would go on to play a key role in the 1969's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
A ghost in the weeds?

Major Awards:

Director Clayton won Best Director from the National Board of Review, and was nominated by the Directors Guild of America and the Cannes Film Festival. The film was nominated for a BAFTA best film.  Kerr, whose performance is outstanding lost out in that year's Oscar nominations, but she did receive one for another 1961 film, The Sundowners.

The British magazine The Guardian recently named it the 11th best horror film of all time.  

Similar films of interest:
  • The Shining (1980) by Stanley Kubrick
  • The Haunting (1963) by Robert Wise
  • The Uninvited (1944) by Lewis Allen
Other films by Jack Clayton:
  • Room at the Top (1959) by Jack Clayton


Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Longest Day (1962) -

Based on Cornelius Ryan's gripping international best-seller, the film presents a factual account of one of history's greatest battles, D-Day, June 6, 1994, when Allied forces under the command of Dwight D. Eisenhower stormed the beaches of Normandy and secured a foothold in Europe. One of the turning points of WWII, the film is a sweeping drama shown from the perspective of both sides, and features both common soldiers and commanding officers. It begins a few days before the assault and takes the audience through the nerve-racking run-up to the battle and through the first day. The International cast of 42 actors includes John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, and Henry Fonda.

The Opening Shot of the film.

This is still one of the best war films ever made and a monumental undertaking by producer Darryl Zanuck. A labor of love for Zanuck, it effectively honors the brave men and women who fought, and conveys the horror of battle. I first saw the film in 1969, the 25th anniversary of the actual invasion. 

Shot in large part on location (in some cases at or near the actual battleground), the film is packed with large and small details that made up the mosaic of the battle. One of the best sequences involves an attack by French commandos on a German stronghold in the town of Ouistreham. Shot from a helicopter, it shows Allied troops negotiating debris strewn streets as they approach a casino. They are under heavy fire the whole way, and like the beach scenes, explosions and machine gun fire burst all around them. Another memorable scene is the night paratroop drop by the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions on St. Mere-Eglise, where Red Buttons' chute lines get hung up on a church steeple. He dangles helpless, forced to watch the bloody slaughter below. And German Spitfires strafe the beaches in a long high camera shot, scattering the soldiers in panic as smoke billows upward. If not as realistic as Saving Private Ryan, the battle scenes here are still exciting and look mighty dangerous, and not reliant on CGI effects.   

The film's most dramatic moment comes with Major Werner Pluskat in his bunker. Odd happenings have alerted the Germans that something might be up. As a consequence, the German officer has been watching the sea all morning, but there is no sign of an invasion in his sector. About to retire, he takes one final look through the pillbox view slot. Suddenly the mist clears, and like ghosts, thousands of ships fill the horizon. It is shocking. The Navy's big guns unleash and the air is ripped by shells, showering Pluskat with dust and shaking the bunker to its foundation. It is a marvelous sequence.    

There are quiet moments too, such as Resistance fighters anxiously listening to radios, waiting for code words to cue their efforts, and Eisenhower's staff deliberations on the eve of the battle. Henry Grace plays Eisenhower. Bearing a remarkable likeness to the real man, Grace does a wonderful job capturing the immense pressure weighing on the Allied commander. His forehead is furrowed with deep worry as he consults his staff before making the decision to launch the invasion. It is a small window of good weather, but he knows that waiting is taking a heavy toll on the men and their morale. The scene effectively portrays the loneliness of high command.  

Wayne as Vandervoot, hobbled by a broken ankle.
Of course many of the actors are too old for their parts--Wayne was 27 years older than Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort and Robert Ryan 15 years older than Brigadier General James Gavin at the time of the battle--but these casting choices are easy to forgive. Newer generations of movie fans might not enjoy picking out the many cameos of by-gone stars, but this is great fun for older viewers.  

Robert Mitchum. 
This is the type of film that doesn't require a lot from its actors; action is paramount. But two performances that stand out are Mitchum's and Burton's. Mitchum looks authentically rugged chomping on a cigar as he urges the men off Omaha Beach, and Burton has a nice closing scene with Richard Beymer, who's been following the sound of gunfire all day, but always arriving too late. Burton points out a dead German he has killed--the man has his boots on the wrong feet. Beymer has the last word: "I wonder who won." Somehow, the scene perfectly captures the chaos and confusion of battle.  

Paul Anka wrote the rousing theme score and Maurice Jarre the original score. A nine-time Oscar nominee, Jarre was a long-time collaborator with director David Lean. He would win the award for next year's Lawrence of Arabia, and twice more for Lean films: Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1985.)

What Makes The Longest Day Special:

Zanuck painstakingly made the film as authentic as possible. Germans and French speak their own language with English subtitles, and it was filmed in black and white to give it the feel of a newsreel. Three directors were used on the production: Ken Annakin for the British exterior episodes, Andrew Marton for the American exterior episodes, and Bernhard Wicki for the German episodes. This no doubt gave the film balance.

And because Zanuck never dawdles too long on any one episode or any one actor, you get a better understanding of the immensity of the area contested and the staggering planning and execution that went into the real operation. This approach helps the film move along, making it seem shorter than it's three-hour running length. 

The Inside Story:

A few real battle participants acted in the film, including Richard Todd.

At $10 million it was the most expensive B&W film until Schindler's List in 1993.

Major Awards

Won Oscars for Best Cinematography (black and white) and for Best Effects. It was nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Editing, and Best Picture.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) -- Howard Hawks

Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) operates a small airline company near a backwater port in South America. Flying mail and cargo over a narrow mountain pass with wind and dense fog is dangerous business—more than one pilot has cracked up on the trip. At the moment, Geoff is short-handed and waiting for a new, replacement pilot. And though it is never explained why, the pilots all carry side arms, perhaps to ward off guerrillas hoping to high-jack their freight. In any case, it is a job for men, the more stoic the better.

Two women turn up to complicate Geoff's life. American showgirl Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is in port waiting for her ship. She finds herself attracted to the cynical boss and decides to stay. Later, Judy (Rita Hayworth), one of Geoff's many former girlfriends arrives as the wife of the new pilot, Bat MacPherson, (Richard Barthelmess), whose dubious past has turned him into a pariah. Bonnie wonders why men risk their lives in this remote place:   

Bonnie: They must love it. Flying, I mean.
Sparks: radioman: Why do you think they come down to this kind of a place?
Bonnie: It's like being in love with a buzz saw.
Sparks: Not much future in it.
Bonnie: What is there about it that gets them?
Sparks: I'm not a flier myself. Hey, you'd better ask the Kid. Miss Lee. Mr. Dabb.
Bonnie: How'd you do?
Sparks: She wants to know why you like flying.
Kid Dabb: I've been in it 22 years, Miss Lee. I couldn't give you an answer that would make any sense. What's so funny about that?
Bonnie: That's what my dad used to say.
KId: Flier?
Bonnie: No, trapeze. High stuff. He wouldn't use a net.
Sparks: Not much future in that, either.
Bonnie: Yes. We found that out.

An ex-flame (Rita Hayworth) complicates Geoff's life.
The script is full of that kind of fast, clever dialog, often overlapping. When Bonnie asks Kid (Thomas Mitchell) if Geoff used to be in love with Judy, he responds: "When it rains, every third drop falls on one of them."

Howard Hawks made action adventure films heavy on comradeship, with brave men who live on the edge without too much complaining. They rely on luck and are tough, and they enjoy a good time with women, laughing and drinking. When a friend dies in the line of duty, they pretend not to care—it's just part of the job. Geoff sits down and eats the man's steak. Hawksian women are usually strong-minded. Bonnie fits the bill. She knows how to take care of herself and sets about to crack Geoff's cold exterior, a man who seems callous and uncaring. But Geoff isn't all he seems. He won't ask Bonnie to stay. Instead he flips a coin: heads she stays, tails she goes. She doesn't know it's a two-headed coin. 

One of the best scenes occurs as Geoff tries to talk a pilot down by radio in the fog. Hawks focuses on the faces of the people on the ground. They are tense as strain to listen. The plane hits a tree and starts to tumble. Kid lights a cigarette, his hand shaking. Another great scene happens at the bar with Bonnie at the piano, showing she can be one of the guys.

The supporting cast is fun and includes Thomas Mitchell, Noah Berry and Sig Ruman. Ruman plays Dutchy, Geoff's partner and bartender. He's probably most remembered as the two-faced POW guard Sergeant Shultz in Stalag 17 (1953).         
What Makes Angels Special:

Grant and Arthur.
It takes timing to make snappy dialog effective, and Jean Arthur and Cary Grant have great chemistry and wonderful timing. Arthur's voice is one of film's most distinctive and Grant did double-takes better than anyone. Here, both actors play vulnerable characters hurt in the past. They make a fine contrast as Bonnie wears her heart on her sleeve while Geoff has adopted a hard-shelled personality and womanizes to protect himself from another heartache. Arthur is adorable and for Grant, his character is a change of pace from the usual romantic comedy performances he was known for.

Though tame by later standards, the special effects are fun. Model planes serve as the real thing and in scenes with thick fog, the strain of labored engines sound just right.

Thomas Mitchell, one of Hollywood's best character actors, gives another memorable performance as a wise and tired pilot who loves Geoff as a son. 1939 was a big year for him. He also starred in Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.   

Inside Story:
Bonnie plays The Peanut Vendor song while Geoff sings. 
Howard Hawks knew about danger and airplanes. In World War I he served in the Army Air Corps. After the war, he was a race car driver and pilot. 

As a director he believed "a good film consisted of at least three good scenes and no bad ones." He has several to his credit that meet this standard.

Near the end of the film, Bonnie tells Geoff,"I'm hard to get, Geoff, all you have to do is ask." Hawks used almost the same line in the film To Have and Have Not five years later with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. 

Major Awards:
  • Oscar Nominations for Best Cinematography and for Special Effects.
  • Hawks won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy in 1971.
Other Films of Interest by Howard Hawks:
  • His Girl Friday - 1940
  • Sergeant York - 1941
  • Ball of Fire - 1941
  • The Big Sleep - 1946
  • Red River - 1948
  • The Thing - 1951
  • Rio Bravo - 1959
  • Hatari! - 1962
  • El Dorado - 1966

The Misfits (1961) - John Huston

A group of aimless people fall in together in Reno, all searching for something missing in their life, true misfits who are adrift and lonely. Gay Langland (Clark Gable) is more or less the leader, an aging cowboy struggling to remain independent and relevant. When he meets Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) he feels a stirring he hasn't felt for a long time. So does Guido (Eli Wallach), one of Gay's friends. He works in a garage and owns a biplane, which he and Gay sometimes use to round up wild horses that they sell for dog food. Along for the ride are a busted up rodeo rider, Perce (Montgomery Clift), and Roslyn's friend and landlady, Isabelle (Thelma Ritter). 

Gay and Roslyn share a quiet moment.
There is a sadness about this film--in part because we know it as the last for two Hollywood legends, Gable and Monroe--but more for its subject matter. All the characters are lost souls who cling either to broken dreams that they know are beyond their reach, or to pasts that somehow went awry. The men drink too much and wallow a little too much in self-pity, and are burdened by bitterness. Speaking of women, Guido says, "You struggle, you build, you try, you turn yourself inside out for 'em, but it's never enough. So they put the spurs to you." Gay is estranged from his children. You sense that under his amiable surface there's a meanness.

Gable looks the part, a once strong man whose waistline is getting soft, with sun-baked face and tired eyes. He might not admit it out loud, but he knows his best days are gone. That Roslyn is attracted to him might be a stretch--she looks thirty years younger--but she is disillusioned by a failed marriage and maybe on the verge of a breakdown. Besides her obvious beauty, she still shines with a sweat innocence. Gay likely seems a safe haven, and perhaps, a father-figure. And despite his circumstances, he's able to at least appear hopeful. Trying to explain himself to Roslyn after realising a captured mustang, he says, "It's like roping a dream now. You just gotta find another way to be alive, if there is one."

The wordy script by Monroe's husband, playwright Arthur Miller, somehow works thanks to the uniformly fine acting. Gable and Monroe give the best dramatic performances of their careers. More importantly, we can relate to these characters as people. A wrong turn here, or an unlucky event there, and they could be us.

Montgomery Clift's Perce is the most poignant character; again, in part by Clift's own life's circumstance. An immensely skilled actor whose self-doubts and emotional instability always affected his roles, increasingly so after a nearly fatal 1957 car accident scarred his face, his performance as the fragile Perce hits close to home. The others first meet him on the side of the road near a phone booth, hitch-hiking to a rodeo. He's waiting for a call from his mother. When it comes they have a rushed, awkward conversation, not really connecting with one another. We only hear Perce's side of the call. There's an allusion to a hospital stay and a face injury, and Perce tells her "it's all healed up now." You later learn his mother remarried after the father's death and now is "changed." Perce, embarrassed by the call, closes the door for privacy, turning his back to the others. You understand better why he drifts from one rodeo to the next, unable to go home.

Three screen legends 
The treatment of Monroe's character in the film similarly borders reality. An emotionally fragile and tragic figure, she wanted desperately to be taken as a serious actress by Hollywood. She must have seen herself in the part of Roslyn, a beautiful, sensitive girl, whom men view merely as a sex symbol. And that's how Gay and Guido first see her. 

Gay:       What makes you so sad? You're the saddest girl I ever met.
Roslyn: You're the first man who's ever said that. I'm usually told how happy I am.
Gay:       That's because you make a man feel happy.

                       [He tries to kiss her, but she demures]
Roslyn: I don't feel that way about you, Gay.
Gay:       Don't get discouraged girl, you might.

Director Huston includes two disturbing scenes: Monroe/Roslyn is shown playing with a ball and paddle in a bar as men shoulder their way for a closer look; they holler and ogle her rump moving with the motion. In another she and Gay are on horseback. He lags behind, leering as her butt bounces in the saddle. Neither is really necessary for the story and seem almost cruelly exploitative in retrospect.  
The best scene is the roundup on the salt flats, beautifully shot but horrifying in its brutality. Russell Metty handles the cinematography (He won that year's Oscar for another film, Spartacus). Gable reportedly performed most of his own stunts, including being dragged 400 feet over the hard ground at 30 miles an hour. It's a physically and emotionally tense sequence that leaves him gasping, sitting on a running board, bent and exhausted. Roslyn's fierce reaction is a turning point in Gay's life. Gable uses his leathery face and gravely voice here to great effect. He's taking an honest look at whether his life stills holds any decency.

The exhausting work may have contributed to the actor's death, just a few weeks after film production wrapped. The horses are symbolic of the characters, misfits in their own right, threatened by hardship.   
Roslyn is appalled on learning the horses' fate.
Alex North's score contributes wonderfully well to the haunting loneliness of the film.   

What Makes The Misfits Special:

The disquieting mood of the film is perfect for the story. Seldom has a film and script mirrored the real lives of its cast so forcefully and honestly. And this is a powerful cast. Its three main stars were giants of American film in the 20th Century. People today forget how large a presence Clark Gable was, but he was called "The King." By 1960 he had long since ruled the box office. That at age 59 he would produce such a fine performance is surprising and remarkable. And though they know something more of Monroe, it is certainly more as a cultural icon than actress. Her insecurities led to a troubled life and inconsistent performance in film. As Roslyn, she came closer to realizing her potential than any other role, and gives us a glimpse of what might have been. Clift would have just one more great performance, as a physically and mentally ravished former Nazi prisoner in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). A four-time Oscar nominee, his erratic behavior eventually got the best of him. He died just 5 years later.  It is wonderful seeing these three actors together. That the film veers toward over-sentimentality at the end can be forgiven.       
Inside Story:
The film was not well received critically upon its release. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times said of the characters: "They are amusing people to be with, for a little while, anyhow. But they are shallow and inconsequential, and that is the dang-busted trouble with this film."

Major Awards:
John Huston was nominated for Best Director by the Director's Guild of America.

Other Huston Films of Interest:
  • The Maltese Falcon - 1941
  • The Treasure of Sierra Madre - 1948
  • Key Largo - 1948
  • The Asphalt Jungle - 1950
  • The African Queen - 1951
  • Moby Dick - 1956
  • The Night of the Iguana - 1964