Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Most Beautiful Women post

Every once in a while, while watching a film, I have been struck with how beautiful an actress is. I may have seen her before in other roles, or maybe it is the first time I've seen her in a film. Perhaps the cameraman has just the right lighting, the makeup is perfect, or maybe it's a character that is particularly likable. More likely, she is just naturally gorgeous.

Here are women that gave me a sudden "Wow. That woman is beautiful" moment. It hasn't happened often, and of course, there are many attractive actresses out there--Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Olivia de Haviland to name a few-- that haven't produced quite the same reaction. And I'm sure there will be others, or maybe I just haven't seen the right film.

Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West

Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes

Tatyana Samojlova in The Cranes are Flying
Zhanna Prokhorenko in Ballad of a Soldier

Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel

Carole Lombard in Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Alida Valli in The Third Man
Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle
Deborah Kerr in King Solomon's Mines

Tarita in Mutiny on the Bounty

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Favorite Westerns

I've watched Western films all my life. The romance of cowboys and Indians, horse thieves, stagecoaches, and long cattle drives under a starry sky were impossible to resist for a boy growing up in the 1960s. Like a lot of Americans at the time, I was caught up in the myth of it all. The genre seemed to dominate the television of my youth, when the parade of oaters seemed endless. Favorite characters included Matt Dillon, Hoss and Little Joe, Cheyenne, Maverick, Sugarfoot, Rowdy Yates, Bronco, Lucas McCain, and James West. Of course, I saw every new John Wayne film, and over the years I'd guess there is no actor whose films I've re watched more often.

Back then it was the action that held my attention. It still does, but today I have a greater appreciation for the cinematography, the score, the script, the direction, and the acting. Here are my favorites. A baker's dozen of beautiful films to get you longing for the Old West. If not also among most critics' lists of greatest Westerns, they should be, darn it. The first five are solid, but don't ask me to list them in any order. Depends on the mood. (If interested in my full review of some, click on the titles)

The Five Greatest Westerns:

Shane (1953) -- George Stevens

A perfect film. For me, Stevens best work. Gorgeous cinematography of the Tetons, a menacing villain, a great cast--even Brandon De Wilde as Joey--and what seems to me, just about the most authentic setting for the old West. Lots of dirt and mud to depict the hard-scrabble life. It's also a story of a family, and captures one of the signature themes of the genre: progress in the form of sod-busters against the free-range cattlemen who settled the land. Joe Starrett and the farmers may be the good guys here with Shane, but I sympathize a little for Rufus Ryker.

The Searchers (1956) -- John Ford

Wayne and Ford's best collaboration. Monument Valley in splendid reds, golds, and slate blue. Stunning shot after stunning shot and don't tell me Wayne can't act. The most dense of Westerns with Ethan Edwards an extraordinarily complicated character. The quiet moment between Edwards and his sister-in-law, with Ward Bond looking awkward in the foreground, is a Ford triumph.

The Wild Bunch (1969) -- Sam Peckinpah

I wish I had seen this film upon it's initial release. The impact must have been wonderful. William Holden gives maybe the finest performance of his career, and Peckinpah's script is my favorite of any Western, capturing the end of an era with beauty and poignancy. Three magnificent action sequences. Yes, it's bloody as hell, but big bullets will do that to a body. People say The Godfather was a film about family, but The Wild Bunch beat the Corleone's to the punch. And cheers for Lucien Ballard's camera and Jerry Fielding's score.

Unforgiven (1992) -- Clint Eastwood

The last great Western. Eastwood's best film. Again, spectacular cinematography and music, and a script with one of my favorite passages:

The Schofield Kid: [after killing a man for the first time] It don't seem real... how he ain't gonna never breathe again, ever... how he's dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.
Will Munny: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.
The Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
Munny: We all got it coming, kid."

You'd be hard pressed to find a better anti-hero than Will Munny. A man alleged to be a cold, brutal killer of women and children. Maybe, but I rooted for him anyway.

Stagecoach (1939) -- John Ford

Ford and Wayne in Monument Valley for the first time. A splendid ensemble cast and magnificent stunt work in the classic chase scene. There's a lot to admire here: Thomas Mitchell, the score of American folk standards, and the superb direction. It's easy to understand its iconic status. Ford's deft touch of lightness at the end is perfect.   

Best of the Rest:

The Naked Spur (1953) -- Anthony Mann

My favorite of the five Mann/Stewart collaborations. Gorgeous cinematography of the rugged Rockies with Stewart plumbing his dark side. I like a tight story that focuses on a few characters. Here we only see five. Robert Ryan is a mean SOB and a young Janet Leigh her prettiest. The confrontation at the rapids is great.

Hombre (1967) -- Martin Ritt

A fine story of an outcast who finally gets fed up. Take it as a comment on how civilization makes us soft. Who doesn't love a Mexican bandit? and Richard Boone makes a threatening heavy. Newman is a white man raised by Apaches and has one of Western's best lines: "Hey I got a question. How you planning to get back down that hill?"

The Big Country (1958) -- William Wyler

Maybe the best opening of any Western with the stage moving across the sweeping landscape and Jerome Moross' rousing theme. Almost gives you chills. A terrific story of two stubborn families at logger-heads. The fist-fight, Peck training the horse, and beautiful Jean Simmons. Peck picks the right girl.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (1967) -- Sergio Leone

This film is just flat out fun all the way through. Three protagonists are after gold during the Civil War. For me, easily the best of the "Man with No Name" films. Eli Wallach steals the show as Tuco and the last ten minutes or so are wonderfully hectic. Spaghetti never looked so good.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) -- Sergio Leone

Leone's masterpiece. A beautiful homage to the American Western with Morricone's haunting score, awesome vistas of Monument Valley, Henry Fonda as a cold-blooded bastard, the riveting opening shootout, and of course, Claudia Cardinale. You didn't see women like her on the Ponderosa. A terrific story of revenge and the onset of progress in the West as represented by the railroad.

My Darling Clementine (1946) -- John Ford

Lovely cinematography in this mythologized tale of the shoot-out at the OK Corral. If Tombstone and Wyatt Earp weren't exactly like this, it doesn't matter; this film is poetry. Though the famous line "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend" didn't appear until 18 years later with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it suits this film perfectly. Ford knew how to tell a story without relying on dialog.

The Ox Bow Incident (1943) - William Wellman

The most moving statement on mob justice ever put to film. Dana Andrews gives an inspired performance as one of the victims and the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, including Frank Conroy as the out-of-control Major Tetley; Harry Davenport as the voice of reason, Mr. Davies; and Jane Darwell as one of the blood-thirsty lynchers. Thank Wellman and cinematographer Arthur Miller for the beautiful shot above, showing that even good men lose themselves and their conscious in a mob.

Ride The High Country (1960) -- Sam Peckinpah

A sublime paring of Joel McCray and Randolph Scott, two terrific actors at the end of their respective careers. Their canons included plenty of fine Westerns. This has probably my favorite final scene of any Western -- McCray sinking out of the frame. Beautifully shot in California. They are great and it would have been just as fine had they traded places as originally conceived. After watching this, all you can want is to enter your house justified.

What'd I leave off?

I'd never argue against the inclusion of any of Ford's Cavalry Trilogy and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Howard Hawks' Red River and Rio Bravo, Carl Zinnemann's High Noon; Wyler's The Westerner; or Mann's Winchester 77.  Great Westerns all.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Films of the Cold War

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, as the only super powers to emerge from the ashes of the Second World War, lasted approximately 40 years. Tensions ebbed and flowed throughout the 1950s, until four events in quick succession in the early 1960s raised world anxieties to new levels: the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Kennedy assassination. People had good reason to feel that mankind teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

The national angst, fueled by a high performance propaganda machine powered out of Washington, helped President Kennedy launch the Space Race in a May, 1961 speech. The endeavor, drama at its most spine tingling, was restorative to boot. It redirected the collective mind of a nervous American public from Armageddon to an ambitious quest, one of discovery that would require heroic courage, a goal that appealed to the young president. In the bargain, success meant staying one step ahead of our arch enemy, the Communists.

Hollywood also took notice, understanding that the Cold War offered commercial opportunities. In fact, it had been scratching the surface of the genre for over a decade in films like It Came From Outer Space and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, thinly veiled references to the threat of Soviet invasion or attack, or the more restrained and gloomy On the Beach. But in its constant search for bigger box office, America’s deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union prompted Hollywood to capitalize on the heightened fears of the American public.

It began producing topical films that seemed right out of the day’s newspaper headlines. Many contained a doomsday message—mankind simply couldn’t be trusted to control the terrible weapons it had created. In the process it moved the Cold War genre from allegory to realism. Here are some of the best from the period: The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Seven Days in May (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), and The Bedford Incident (1965). All are in stark black and white with fine production values to create the right mood for suspense.

The Manchurian Candidate - 1962

Captain Bennett Marco is a confused army intelligence officer. A recurring nightmare haunts his sleep since his return from Korea. Inexplicably, it is of a women’s garden party lecture on hydrangeas with Marco and the soldiers of his patrol sitting on folding chairs on a stage appearing bored. That is the viewer’s introduction to what is arguably the best political thriller of all time.

Chinese Communists have concocted a devilish scheme to brainwash the Americans, including Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who back in the states is an idolized hero and Medal of Honor winner. Shaw reportedly saved the captain and his men while taking out an enemy machine gun nest. Marco, without emotion, says of Shaw, “he is the kindest, bravest, warmest, and most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” But something is amiss. Marco knows the sergeant is insufferable, a man impossible to like. He can’t put his finger on it but Shaw is not what he seems.

Based on the Richard Condon best seller, Director John Frankenheimer made a film that ostensibly is about how an enemy turns a captured American soldier into its trained assassin to commit an unspeakable crime for political gain. He ejects the novel’s more lurid passages, strong hints of incest, and concentrates on the darker story: how politicians and the media in this country brainwash American citizens, and the disturbing ease with which people fall prey to the unchecked ambition of those schooled in manipulation. He unfolds the story with precision and purpose.

Frank Sinatra, as Marco, adequately captures his character’s confusion, albeit at times he could be more subtle—he wonders if he’s going crazy. Lawrence Harvey plays Shaw to perfection—his pent up disgust of just about everything, including himself, simmers just below the surface. Watch the face of both stars to remember that good acting doesn’t require dialog.

Angela Landsbury, in a well-deserved Oscar nominated performance as supporting actress, plays the diabolical Eleanor Iselin, Shaw’s dominating and image conscious mother. She’ll stop at nothing to get her husband into the White House—even murder. James Gregory gives the best performance of his career. McCarthy-like, he plays Landsbury’s red-baiting husband, Senator Iselin.

When first released—coincidentally during the climatic week of the Cuban Missile Crises—the film met with tepid reviews. New York Times reviewer, Bosley Crowther, ridiculed its premise. Still he wrote of its “racy and sharp” dialog and Frankenheimer’s direction, which Crowther found “exciting in the style of Orson Wells.” It now enjoys cult status.

Dr. Strangelove - 1964

Justly acclaimed as one of the greatest American films, let alone Hollywood’s best Cold War effort, Dr. Strangelove is arguably director Stanley Kubrick’s best. It remains an unparalleled black comedy, and while it excels in every aspect, it is the memorable characters and great performances that bring the story to life. Two actors not known for comedy are particularly funny: George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden.

Hayden is an insane general, Jack D. Ripper. Convinced that Communists are conspiring to pollute America’s “precious bodily fluids” by contaminating the water supply with fluoride, he dispatches his bomber wing to destroy Russia. Scott plays the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Buck” Turgidson. Called to the White House by the President, he barely conceals his delight—the planes cannot be recalled. Turgidson grins broadly, emits a motor sound, and spreads his arms to swoop like a kid to demonstrate for the President how the B-52 bombers will stay beneath the enemy radar. The character is modeled after Curtis LeMay, the real life early 1960s Chairman of the JCS and rabid anti-Communist.

Peter Sellers gives a tour de force in three separate roles: a British officer out of his league with the crazed Ripper; American President Merkin Muffley; and the bizarre Dr. Strangelove, a German scientist who has problems controlling his Nazi salute. Much of the film takes place in the White House war room, a set that critic Roger Ebert called “one of the most memorable of movie interiors.” Here the president and his odd team of advisers assemble with the Russian ambassador to discuss options. Strangelove discloses the existence of a secret "Doomsday Device," a weapon the Russians will unleash in retaliation. It will destroy all plant and animal life on Earth.

Slim Pickens, in another role originally written for Peter Sellers until he broke an ankle, plays gun-ho Major “King” Kong. He commands the lone plane that makes it to the target. An H-bomb becomes his personal bunking bronco in one of the most unforgettable exits in all film.

The film is full of great lines. Among the best: “Dimitri, we have a little problem ….”; “A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff."; and the most famous: "Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!"

The film captured four Oscar nominations: for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Sellers), and Best Screenplay, but came away empty-handed.

Seven Days in May - 1964

Director John Frankenheimer delves into the Cold War genre a second time and puts a twist on the already traditional plot line, with the Russians merely an off-screen presence.

Frederick March plays President Lyman, a liberal who fears that the nuclear age has killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. About to introduce a disarmament treaty to the U.S. Senate, he is up against Burt Lancaster as General James Mattoon Scott. The right-wing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Scott plans a military takeover because he fears the president is compromising the safety of the country. Kurt Douglas plays Lancaster’s aide, Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, who accidentally uncovers the plot by stumbling onto the cover story—a supposed betting pool for the upcoming Preakness. Each of the headliners infuses his character with authority and conviction to give a convincing and textured performance. Jiggs admires General Scott and is disheartened to take his suspicions to the president, while Scott acts out of genuine fear that the president’s policy threatens the county he loves.

The supporting cast is terrific. Martin Balsam plays Lyman’s friend and right-hand man in the White House; Edmund O’Brien is a Senator with a drinking problem; and Ava Gardner is a Washington socialite whose best days are behind her. O’Brien earned an Oscar nomination. He pays a surprise visit to a mysterious base in the middle of the Arizona desert where Lancaster is training a special assault force. It is a wonderful set piece. When the Senator is forcibly held incommunicado and tempted with booze, you can’t help but worry about his safety.

Rod Serling wrote the screenplay, adapted from Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey’s best-selling novel. Serling brings his Twilight Zone magic with crisp dialog that crackles as the protagonists go at one another. The final confrontation between March and Lancaster is a highlight, with an aggravated President Lyman dressing down the self-rightist officer: "Then, by God, run for office! You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country…why in the name of God don’t you have any faith in the system of government you’re so hell-bent to protect?"

And like his film The Manchurian Candidate two years earlier, Frankenheimer presents a cautionary tale here. It is not only the military that citizens need be wary of, but also two other American institutions that in the early 60s were still generally held in high regard, the press and Congress. Members of both have joined Scott’s cabal and put their personal agendas ahead of the Constitution. Neither can be trusted.

The book and film were inspired by the disarmament debate raging in Washington at the time. A temporary suspension of nuclear testing by both super powers in 1958 failed to produce a lasting treaty and by 1962, each nation had resumed the proliferation race.

Fail-Safe - 1964

It is the height of the Cold War. Strategic Air Command routinely flies missions to the fail safe position—the line beyond which pilots are to cease communications and ignore orders to return to base. A computer glitch sends a squadron of six B-58 bombers off to obliterate Moscow. They carry a payload of two-megaton hydrogen bombs. The U.S. President, played by an increasingly frustrated Henry Fonda, soon is on the hotline to the Russian Premier trying to explain the foul up.

Tensions mount and cold sweat starts to pour as efforts to recall the bombers fail. American fighters ordered to intercept the bombers exhaust their fuel and crash into the Arctic Sea, and Soviet MIGs dispatched to shoot down the highly skilled bombers only manage to stop five. Eventually, the president is left with a chilling option to avert a possible retaliatory strike and nuclear Armageddon. He issues an order too incredible to contemplate.

This is a grim and pessimistic tale. Up against the incomparable Dr. Strangelove, released nine months earlier, this film was all but ignored at the box office. It lacks any of the black humor embedded in Kubrick’s masterpiece; instead, relying on straight dramatic performances in an intentionally claustrophobic setting. With the feel of a documentary throughout, it is a riveting film.

Nowhere is the contrast between Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe more obvious than in the conversations between the American and Russian leaders. Kubrick and Peter Sellers played it for camp, while here, director Sidney Lumet and Fonda play it dead serious. Lumet is a master with the camera, making exquisite use of shadows and tight angles to keep the mood tense and the audience nervous.

The cast is top notch. Fonda is the headliner, a decent and morally grounded man facing a Hobson’s choice. Walter Matthau, known best for his later comedic roles, shines as a cynical professor and Pentagon advisor with some unusual theories about nuclear warfare. He is coldly practical and believes the Russians are “calculating machines,” who will “look at the balance sheet and see they cannot win.” He’s convinced they will surrender rather than retaliate. Dan O’Herlihy a brigadier general in the US Air Force and old classmate of the president is troubled by a nightmare about a matador. Ed Binns is Jack Grady, a by-the-book Air Force Colonel who leads the bomber squadron.

Given the jaw-dropping ending, it’s no wonder the Department of Defense refused to cooperate with filming.

The Bedford Incident - 1965

This film shows that the Cold War did not just play out in the seats of government in Washington, London, and Moscow; but also in isolated, inhospitable locations. Richard Widmark plays Eric Finlander, an over-zealous Navy captain of a guided missile destroyer, the USS Bedford. His harassment of a Soviet submarine that veers into Greenland territorial waters borders on the obsessive. A modern day version of Ahab, he shadows the sub in a dangerous game of cat and mouse in the frigid North Atlantic, hoping to force it to the surface—against orders from NATO.

Finlander’s motives are questionable. A dubious past caused him to have been recently passed over for the rank of Admiral, leading him to take out his frustrations on the enemy and his own crew. The hunt is everything and he drives his crew to exhaustion. Inevitably, the crew gets wound so tight they are prone to mistakes, which here can lead to disaster.

Director James Harris builds tension throughout and maintains suspense by never showing the inside of the enemy sub; events unfold only from the perspective of the American vessel. Still, it is clear that the Soviet crew suffers from increasingly foul air from the sub’s diesel engines as its oxygen is depleted. As the sub commander naturally grows more desperate and Widmark more determined, three men aboard the American vessel become increasingly nervous that its captain will push the game too far.

Sidney Poitier is one, along for the ride as a noisy photojournalist doing a story on the “provocative” captain. He tries to bait Finlander into saying something he shouldn’t in one of the film’s best scenes, as Finlander, showing little tolerance of reporters, struggles to maintain control. Widmark—always an underrated actor—is excellent, rubbing his face nervously and seething with bitterness.

Finlander also ignores reasoned advice from the ship’s doctor, Martin Balsam in another solid character role performance, and from a U.N. observer, a former U-Boat commander who knows something about the mentality and tendencies of submarine commanders under duress.

Filmed in England at Shepperton Studios, director Harris does a nice job with set design and sound. The sonar pings, howling wind and fog, giant icebergs, and most of all the claustrophobic bridge, all converge to heighten the realism. Harris previously worked as Kubrik’s partner on Dr. Strangelove.

Look for Donald Sutherland in an early role.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold - 1965

Directed by Martin Ritt from the John le Carré novel, which Graham Greene called the “best spy story he ever read,” this is Richard Burton’s film. He plays Alec Leamas, a tired, burnt out British agent stationed in Berlin. Looking at his face, its sunken and dark eyes, and his vacant expression, one can’t help but believe this guy has been through the ringer—been “out in the cold”—for too long.

When an assignment ends in him losing an agent, Leamas is called home. Disgraced, he is “retired” and sinks into depression and booze as he tries to assimilate himself back into normal society as a lowly clerk in a used bookstore. It is a ruse; the Home Office says there is a mole in its midst blowing the cover of its agents. Leamas pretends to defect, and that’s where Ritt and le Carré spin a web of intrigue that takes Burton and the viewer on an emotional ride.

Eventually, Leamas realizes his mission is to sow misinformation and that he is a pawn to save the life of a double agent. He is part of an ugly game, with no winner—one where you can’t trust anyone, least of all your own government. By the end, his disgust with the game, its deceit, and with himself, is palpable.

You could never mistake Leamas’ world for James Bond or Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Ideologies are blurred, and there are no gimmicks or outlandish technology here, just gritty human interplay that slowly beats down the players. Revealing the real oppressive world of espionage, at one point Leamas vents: “What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”

Ritt expertly transforms le Carré’s grey, depressing world from the page to the screen. In a neat bit of symmetry the film begins and ends at the Berlin Wall. The best scene takes place near the end. In an emotional monologue, Leamas reveals the depth of his disillusionment. He releases all the hate, resentment, and cynicism at the system that cares nothing of its agents. It takes place in a cramped car in the rain, and you feel the claustrophobia present in the place, and in his mind. His mission complete, he is about to escape back to the West, but what has he to escape to? In the end he finds his way back to humanity.

Burton received a Best Actor nomination. He should have won but lost to Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou.

Other notable Cold War films of the period worth viewing include: On the Beach (1959), The Ipcress File (1965), and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ernest Bognine - A Great Bad Guy

Ernest Borgnine was made to play the villain, with a natural physique and sneer for such parts. Tough, burly, and easily threatening, you wouldn't want to run into him angry in a dark alley. Just ask Monty Clift. Ernie had decent range as an actor though and handled plenty of good guy roles too; even being sweat and gentle, such as his Oscar-winning performance as Marty. But I will always think of him as perfect as a cold, menacing heavy. 

Thanks for many years of great entertainment, Ernie. And rest in peace. We will miss you.

Here are my favorite roles in which you played nasty characters.

1. From Here to Eternity

Never more dangerous than as Sergeant "Fatso" Judson. He ran the stockade and literally beat the hell out of light-weight Frank Sinatra. Smart enough not to take on Burt Lancaster with a broken bottle, the knife fight in that dark alley with Clift left him mortally wounded and bleeding on the discarded cabbage.

2. Johnny Guitar

One of the Dancin' Kid's gang. Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) didn't take too kindly to your threat: "A man who can't hold on to a glass should drink like a baby from a bottle. Open your mouth guitar man, and I'll feed ya." Borgnine starts the fight with a sucker punch but gets the worst of it.

3. Bad Day at Black Rock

As lap dog for another movie baddie, Robert Ryan, he hadn't learned anything about being a bully. Here he wouldn't let poor one-armed Spencer Tracy enjoy a bowl of soup. In a classic fight he forgets to watch out for karate chops and a screen door.

4. Ice Station Zebra

A dirty rotten Russian spy who kills Jim Brown and tries to sabotage one of our Navy subs. His accent left something to be desired but not his evil intent.

5. Emperor of the North

Shack is a sadistic railway conductor who hates hobos who try to ride without a ticket. He wields a mean sledge hammer. Lee Marvin challenges him for supremacy of the rails and after a bloody fight, Ernie gets tossed overboard.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Rear Window (1954) -- Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock does an interesting thing to his audience in Rear Window. While we vicariously play peeping tom with the protagonist, Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart), we don't think what the residents of those apartments he is so intent on spying on might think if the roles were reversed. What would Miss Lonelyhearts think if she could see into Jeff's apartment? Who is this creepy middle-aged fellow who ignores his girlfriend to lie around all day in his pajamas, staring into his neighbors' apartments through a telephoto lens? And why would a girl like that blond be hanging out with such a weirdo, anyway? Looks like his daughter. Surely she could do better. And where did she get those gorgeous gowns?

An accident has put Jeff, a professional photographer, out of commission. During his convalescence, he passes the time snooping on his neighbors. The resident who holds Jeff's greatest attention is dumpy-looking traveling salesman, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), who may or may not have killed his wife. When the woman suddenly disappears, Jeff grows suspicious. When he sees Thorwald handling knives, cleaning the walls, and making mysterious trips in the night, he becomes convinced, believing Thorwald has sliced up his victim with a caring knife and snuck out the body parts in a suitcase. To convince his best friend, Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey), a police detective, Jeff elicits the help of his girl friend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and housekeeper, Stella (Thelma Ritter).

One of the best aspects of the film is its set, a typical New York apartment house in the 1950s. All the residences have access to a center courtyard, and it's from his rear window, that Jeff engages in his voyeurism. The place is populated with a cross-section of New Yorkers: a pair of newly-weds, a struggling musician, a retired couple, the curvaceous Miss Torso, sad Miss Lonelyhearts, and the Thorwalds. All the action takes place here and Hitchcock does a masterful job capturing our attention for two hours, making us forget that it occurs in such a seemingly innocuous setting.

James Stewart doesn't like what he sees.

Through characteristic superb editing (thanks to nine-time collaborator, George Tomasini), Hitchcock tells and shows just enough of the story at a time to keep us riveted. A simple example occurs with Jeff's introduction. The camera shows him reclined in a wheelchair, one leg in a cast; it pans to a mangled photographer's camera on a table, and up to a glossy photo of an upended race car in mid air after an accident, one tire flying. With this brief sequence, we know what Jeff's occupation is and how he ended up in the wheelchair.   

Always good at infusing his films with humor amidst the suspense, Hitchcock uses most of these characters to entertain us and control the pace of the film. We only get brief snapshots of their lives, but quickly know a lot about them. For example, oblivious to what else is going on around them, the newly-wed wife slowly exhaust her husband, demanding another romp in the bedroom. Jeff and Thelma nod knowingly. And the Oscar-nominated script is full of wit and double entendres. That writer John Michael Hayes lost the award that year to George Seaton for The Country Girl is quite perplexing.

Jeff: Why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?
Lisa: He likes the way his wife welcomes him home.

Stella: You heard of that market crash in '29? I predicted that.
Jeff: Oh, just how did you do that, Stella?
Stella: Oh, simple. I was nursing a director of General Motors. Kidney ailment, they said. Nerves, I said. And I asked myself, "What's General Motors got to be nervous about?" Overproduction, I says; collapse. When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country's ready to let go.
Miss Torso titillates as she dances in her undies. 
Jeff: [Watching Lt. Doyle staring at Miss Torso dancing in her room] How's your wife?

One of the most interesting occupants is Miss Lonelyhearts, a woman on the wrong side of forty. She battles depression after one too many broken dates. Her sad life is all too common and Jeff and his co-voyeurs watch her sink in despair. For all the titillating excitement the film offers the audience, it is this character and her plight that best reflects what goes on behind closed doors in real life. It's not always happy.   

Hitchcock makes his signature cameo as a guest of the musician, winding a grandfather clock, and a cute little dog and a wedding ring play an important role in the mystery.

Did he, or didn't he? (Raymond Burr as Thorwald)

Stewart gives a great performance as the wheelchair-bound photographer, whose imagination may be getting the best of him. His best scene involves watching Lisa across the way, caught by Thorwald after breaking into his apartment. It is terrifically tense. Fear and guilt grip his face and we share his emotions. There was no better actor working in the 1950s. Ritter gives her usual solid performance, as comfortable as anyone with sarcastic one-liners; and Corey is better than usual with a bemused skepticism that matches the feeling of the audience for most of the film.

Kelly is fine too, though she doesn't need to do anything but stand there. It's easy to see why Hitchcock favored her, so stunningly gorgeous in those Edith Head costumes. Just as no man ever looked as good as Cary Grant in a suit, no gal ever matched the sophistication and glamour that Kelly radiated in a beautiful gown and pearls. If icy to some viewers, I don't see it.

The film worked so well because Hitchcock taps into his audience's own curiosity and secret wish to know about other people. It can be an unseemly characteristic, but we all have it to some extent. Thus, we can all relate to Jeff Jeffries, who serves as our alter ego. The window here isn't just the one Jeff looks out of, but one into ourselves.  

The film garnered four Oscar nominations, including one for Hitchcock for director (his fourth of five career nods), and one for Robert Burkes wonderful photography.    

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sands of the Kalahari (1965) -- Cy Enfield

Three images stand out in this fine story of survival in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa: fierce  baboons with scary sharp fangs; lots and lots of sand; and Susannah York, who manages to look remarkably lovely in all that sweltering heat. A giant swarm of locusts fouls the engines of a small plane, causing it to crash land in the middle of nowhere. The co-pilot is killed, but the pilot and five passengers salvage what they can and walk to a distant outcropping of rocks. With food and water scarce, the odds are against them, and as the story unfolds, we get to see how each deals with pressure in the starkly life-threatening situation.

Miles and miles of nothing but sand.
Stuart Whitman is big game-hunter, Brian O'Brien (a ludicrous name isn't it?). He has the rifle and more testosterone than the other men--and goes shirtless for most of the film to prove it. Naturally assuming the leadership role once the pilot (Nigel Davenport) leaves in a brave attempt to walk to civilization, O'Brien soon takes survival of the fittest a little too seriously.

The cast may not be A-list, but they all do a nice job. The biggest star is Stanley Baker, who also produced the film. As injured Mike Bain, he correctly reads O'Brien before anyone else, sensing the man's dangerous side. Theodore Bikel is a doctor with low self-esteem who finds himself on the wrong end of one of O'Brien's threats. At one point, he and Bain help O'Brien hunt and kill an antelope that provides some needed protein for the stranded group. It's a brutal scene by inference--none of the actual violence is shown on screen--but you get the picture clear enough. The scene is important as it serves to show that man can hold his own against nature in some circumstances, and, of course, that no peaceful animal is safe when the top of the food chain has a rifle and rocks.


Harry Andrews is Grimmelman, an old man with some useful knowledge when it comes to edible native plants. He becomes expendable as O'Brien reasons that one less mouth to feed makes sense. His character is a likable figure here, and a far cry from another one he played that same year. A busy British character actor of the period, Andrews had four films to his credit in 1965. In The Hill he is as a sadistic staff sergeant at a military prison where he makes Sean Connery run up a hill in camp over and over under the brutal sun.

Director Enfield includes some terrific shots of the environment. Besides the baboons, whose growls and shrieks would raise anyone's heart beat, the best may be the brilliant orange sun shown over the opening credits. There are also several scenes that give one a great appreciation for how vital water is for survival in such a place.

And of course, Enfield uses his camera to give the audience plenty of shots of York. After all, this is primarily a guy's picture. As Grace Munkton she's almost a silly and pathetic character, who for a time, is more attracted to machismo than sense. As the only woman in the group, she becomes the ultimate prize for the dominate male. And seeing how she holds up in the heat, it's easy to understand how a man like O'Brien would look twice. But he may be more affected by the sun than the rest, as he seems more interested in shooting baboons in a display of dominance, telling Grace that he only wants what he doesn't already have.   

Whitman, a limited actor who handled action roles well, does adequate work here. He's not supposed to be sensitive or particularly display nuance in his character, and he doesn't. Obsessed with the surrounding baboons, his decisions and fate seem predictable. I suppose the end is open to interpretation, though I think it's clear what will happen. In any case, it's a wonderful shot, filmed from a distance, dramatic and inevitable.

Susannah York as Grace.

Stuart Whitman as Brian O'Brien, a man who lives by instinct.

As an African survival film, I like this one more than another produced that same year: Flight of the Phoenix. The latter certainly had a bigger budget and a better cast, including James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Hardy Kruger, Ernest Borgnine, and Dan Duryea, but the premise is considerably more far-fetched.

Enfield had worked with Baker on another African film, the excellent Zulu (1964), which tells the story of British soldiers fighting Zulu warriors at Rorke's Drift. He also directed The Mysterious Island (1961), a somewhat fantasized take on the Jules Verne's novel.