Wednesday, August 23, 2006


A bit of a rant first: In the last few days, I saw two recent movies that I despised: A SCANNER DARKLY and THE BROTHERS GRIMM. Both were decently-budgeted fantasy/sf films with talented people in front of and behind the camera, and lots of attention to style, but seemingly no attention to telling a good story. I can appreciate movies with elliptical narratives (2001, L'AVVENTURA), but SCANNER and GRIMM present themselves as fairly traditional narrative-driven films, and they utterly fail to tell their stories coherently or otherwise give audience members any reason to stick around once the stylistic shenanigans have gotten old, which for me was about 45 minutes in for both films. I got much more pleasure out of this minor Warners B-film with a hackneyed, time-worn plot but with strong performances, solid production values, and a satisfying narrative.

The plot is a variation on the good brother/bad brother theme which so many movies of the classic era used. The film focuses on Mrs. Lorenzo (Marjorie Rambeau), owner of an Italian restaurant called Mama Ravioli's, and her two sons. John Garfield, her blood son, does poorly in school and winds up in prison in California, though he tells his mom he's working on a ranch and he makes sure that he can keep funneling money to mama with some help from his hard-as-nails gal, Brenda Marshall. Blond-haired William Lundigan, whom Rambaeu adopted when he was a homeless lad, is a hard worker and graduates from college with honors. Garfield gets out of prison just in time to come home for Nick's graduation. He passes Marshall off as his finacee and at first, she gives everyone the cold shoulder, but soon Rambeau and Lundigan thaw her out and she winds up helping out in the kitchen. Garfield finds the two rats who set him up to take the fall back in California and he sets them up to be caught during a robbery. One kills a cop, is arrested, and sentenced to death; the other (Douglas Fowley) escapes and vows to get Garfield, who takes it on the lam to Mexico. In the meantime, Marshall starts hanging out with Lundigan and one thing leads to another until they're engaged and set a wedding date. When Garfield rather improbably hears about it, he comes back determined to expose Marshall's sordid past. For the good of the family, Marshall agrees, on the eve of the wedding, to leave, which breaks Lundigan's heart. It turns out that Rambeau had long ago figured out that Garfield was a common crook, and she has a great scene in which she denounces him to his face, saying she should have killed him when he was a child. This gets to Garfield, who is moved to find a way to square things, even if it means risking getting gunned down by Fowley. Garfield and Marshall are great; Lundigan, whom I like a great deal, doesn't really have much to do besides react rather passively to what happens around him. Rambeau wildly overdoes her Italian mama bit, as does George Tobias as her Italian co-worker, but I enjoyed her anyway, and her disowning scene with Garfield is riveting. Frank Faylen and Paul Guilfoyle have small supporting roles. Garfield kisses his mom on the mouth a few too many times for comfort, but the film doesn't have time to explore any psychological depths. I don't mean to make any great claims for this average B-melodrama, but by gosh, for what it was, I enjoyed it, and had lots more fun with it than with the bloated and self-important epics of '06 that I saw the same week. [TCM]

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