Thursday, August 31, 2023


This French film was a runaway hit in the 60s, possibly because it had the cachet of an artsy new wave movie, but was essentially a very accessible soap opera romance featuring attractive stars. (The insanely catchy theme song by Francis Lai, which became a radio hit, could be another reason.) I gave this a mini-review over twenty years ago, disappointed that I had seen an English dub, but I recently found a DVD of the film with the original French audio and English subtitles at my library, so I gave it another shot. The plot is simple: a young widow and young widower meet while dropping their children off at a boarding school. Anne (Anouk Amiée) is a script girl whose husband, a stuntman, was killed in a stunt accident; Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a race car driver whose wife killed herself when he was badly injured in a race track accident. They get to know each other over a period of a couple of weeks. As he races at Monte Carlo, she follows the press coverage and impulsively sends him a telegram expressing love. When the race is over, he impulsively drives all night to see her in Deauville. They begin to make love, but memories of her husband cause Anne to halt the proceedings. She decides they should end their relationship and takes a train back to Paris by herself. Jean-Louis has one more crazy romantic gesture left to get her to change her mind.

This came off to me as a glossy 60s version of a glossy 50s romantic melodrama. The main difference is that this film fragments the narrative in ways that may have been new and different in 1966. For example, the characters' tragic backstories are filled in piecemeal, like visual flashbacks with little verbal explanation given. The film alternates between black & white and color for no obvious purpose—some critics say that color changes reflect past versus present, or inside versus outside, but those patterns aren't followed. Apparently it just was a solution to a budget problem, but it seemed profound to viewers at the time (the same applies to Lindsay Anderson's IF a couple years later). Amiée and Trintignant are excellent in the lead roles—good-looking, charming, and able to overcome the vagueness of their character's backgrounds and personalities; even though almost every scene features one or both of them, you never feel like you know them. This is basically a two-actor show, but I liked Simone Paris as the boarding school mistress who subtly encourages the romance. The racing scenes were too numerous for my taste, but it is, for the most part, gorgeously photographed. A number of shots of the leads together look like they were taken from glossy TV ads, but probably this movie influenced the later ads. The finale is giddily romantic and satisfying, right out of a classic-era Hollywood romance. Original title: Un homme et une femme. [DVD]

Wednesday, August 30, 2023


Fred Cromwell and 'Jellybean' Cook (named for his prodigious appetite for jellybeans) are two ace air show pilots who are contacted by old friend Hank Davis to take on a big job. Davis is working as an engineer for Stephen Gray who is building a dam in New Mexico and is facing opposition in the form of a villain who calls himself the Black Ace. He leads a band of fliers known as the Mystery Squadron who attack the site with planes decked out with flamethrowers. They have thrown construction into chaos and Davis wants Cromwell and Cook to investigate and fight back. When the two arrive at the dam, they are mistaken for members of the Mystery Squadron by Gray's feisty daughter Dorothy, but soon she joins the two in their pursuit of the Black Ace. We find out the rationale for the attacks: the Ace operates a secret gold mine that would be destroyed by the building of the dam. But there are plenty of suspects who might be the Black Ace. The most obvious are Johnson, a rival contractor, and Collins, a foreman who is actively working with the Squadron. But things are a bit fishy at the local hotel. The owner, Martin, seems unfriendly to Cromwell and Cook, and Flint, the local doctor, is allied with Martin. Or might the Ace be someone closer to Gray’s construction team? The prime era of the serial is generally considered to be from the late 1930s into the early 1950s. This one, from 1933, is fairly primitive even compared to the low-budget production limitations of most of the later serials, but in terms of narrative, it stands up with the best of the genre. Considering the narrow focus and settings of the plot (one threatened dam, one hotel, one mountain hideout for the bad guys), the chapter-ending cliffhangers are varied, including fisticuffs (though the fact that flesh punch noises aren't dubbed in is disappointing), planes set on fire, gunfights, and a car crash. (A little cheating goes on from time to time in terms of the escapes.) As is par for the course, the heroine (Lucile Browne) is often stuck on the sidelines, but she does take center stage a couple of times to perform heroics. Eventually, it seems that practically every secondary character is plotting against Gray, even those who may have no direct connection with the Black Ace, and that got a little confusing for me. 

But the two leads, Bob Steel (Cromwell) and Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams (Cook) are excellent, and Williams' occasional comic relief, mostly involving jellybeans, never gets too irritating. I like the fact that, at the hotel, the two rarely take the stairs, opting instead to leap over the railing to the first landing. The supporting actors are fine, though the biggest name in the cast, J. Carroll Naish, is largely wasted as Collins. Considering the title organization, there are not as many dogfights in the air as you might imagine. The special effects are definitely cheesy—most of the plane sequences involve obvious miniatures, and one scene involving mass destruction of planes is especially unconvincing—but frankly that added to the serial's appeal to me. I will say that the repetitive trips up and down the secret passage at the hotel got tedious, but the identity of the Black Ace, which I figured out just before we're told, is a good reveal. Recommended for serials fans. Pictured are Steele, Williams, and Bob Kortman. [DVD]

Monday, August 28, 2023


After we endure a terrible dance number being broadcast live on the TV variety show Whizbam, we cut to Cliff Donner, a washed-up one-hit wonder pop singer who is about to start a job as a record company employee. The owner of Stan's Cellar (picture the jazz club in Bell Book and Candle) talks him into doing one last gig, which he does. Back on Whizbam, Glen Campbell (yes, the real Glen Campbell, months before his first top 40 hits) is singing when Hallie, one of the writhing go-go girls behind him, leaps out of her cage and wrestles him for the mic, trying to take center stage as a singer. She is immediately fired and, depressed and brooding, she wanders through the nighttime streets, singing "This Town" (a song also recorded by Frank Sinatra). Hallie winds up at Stan's Cellar where Cliff, who saw her performance and thinks she has talent, saves her from the unwanted attentions of a drunk. When it turns out that the kids at home loved watching the brouhaha and started a dance craze called the Tantrum, Stan, a former talent agent, gets Cliff to help him turn her into a star. Though the two hit it off, he is reluctant to return to performing, but agrees to just to give her a start. Stan brings his brother, Tony Krum, an eccentric but powerful producer, in on the plan and it's his idea to concoct a romance, a quickie marriage and a divorce between Hallie and Cliff for publicity. When Cliff, who was actually falling for Hallie, finds out what's going on behind his back, complications ensue.

The opening of this movie was so bad, I almost gave up right away. It's a writhing psychedelic 1960s attempt at a 1930s Busby Berkeley production number. But I’m glad I stuck with it because it eventually becomes a colorful, fun satire of the music business. This is one of those cases where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The acting is only so-so (with one exception), the writing is fairly weak, and the music is mostly not memorable. But it all manages to come together into a fun distraction for a Saturday afternoon. The very handsome Gil Peterson and the peppy Debbie Watson are OK as Cliff and Hallie; Peterson's slight tendency to underact and Watson's tendency to chew the scenery make them work well together. Phil Harris, Robert Coote and George Furth are mostly going through the motions in supporting roles. But Roddy McDowell is having a field day as the producer, clearly based on Phil Spector. He's rich, he dresses in purple (even his limo is purple), and when he lands in his private jet, he turns to his pilot, snaps his fingers and says, "Park it, Sky King!" There are diegetic songs such as the ones in performance settings, and a couple of non-diegetic songs in which characters just burst out into song and dance. The best of these is "High" by Lee Hazelwood (These Boots Are Made for Walkin'), a long and elaborate number sung by our lead couple and their friends at a ski resort. Best lyrics: "We’re gonna get high up here/We're gonna stay high up here!" Oddly, Peterson sings slightly updated versions of some old standards like "Birth of the Blues" and "Secret Love." There are some fun visual gags, including an office full of buxom secretaries and a rock band composed of children who are constantly trying to audition for Tony. One teenager uses a line from West Story to a combative adult—"You were never my age!" This is no masterpiece, but with its colorful sets and mockery of the music biz, it snuck up on me. (As did, I must admit, the blond and pretty Gil Peterson, for whom this appears to be the high point of his career). Pictured are Peterson, McDowell and Watson. [TCM]

Thursday, August 24, 2023

NOON WINE (1985)

Texas, 1890s. Royal Thompson and his wife Ellie live on a small, struggling dairy farm, raising two young sons. The work is hard and Ellie has spells of sickness involving headaches and fatigue. One hot summer afternoon, a tall Swede named Olaf Helton, shambling and a bit disoriented, shows up and asks for work. Royal decides that pawning off jobs such as butchering and cleaning would be a good thing, so he hires Helton on the spot. Helton is quiet but nervous, a man of few words whose only real pleasure in life seems to be playing the same song, over and over, on a harmonica, of which he has several. He quickly becomes indispensable, though Ellie finds him a bit off-putting, especially after he physically assaults the two boys for messing with his harmonicas. Soon, however, the four settle into a routine that lasts for nine years until a bounty hunter named Homer Hatch shows up looking for Helton, claiming he's an escapee from an asylum where he was committed after he killed his own brother with a pitchfork for losing one of his harmonicas. Thompson is unmoored: if Hatch is telling the truth, Helton is a potential menace to him and his family, but given the past nine years, maybe Olaf is no longer dangerous. Or Hatch could be lying for some reason. Either way, Thompson's loyalty is to Olaf, which leads him down a potentially self-destructive path.

From the beginning of this made-for-TV movie, based on a novella by Katherine Anne Porter and originally aired on PBS's American Playhouse, it seems clear that violence will rear its head, probably at the film's climax. When Olaf's not playing his harmonica, he seems to always be at a quiet simmer that could boil over at any time. But when the violence does occur (a plot point I won't spoil), it happens at about an hour into this 90-minute movie, and it comes from an unexpected place. The last part of the film deals with the effects of  the violence on everyone involved. The ending is not happy but is narratively satisfying, drawing on the themes in Porter's story of betrayal and guilt. Fred Ward (pictured as Thompson) rarely had a lead role, opting mostly for character parts, but he carries the film very well here. Stellan Skarsgard (so good in HBO's Chernobyl a few years ago) does what he can with the role of the inarticulate Helton; the character remains a cipher to us so Skarsgard can't really deepen our understanding of him, but he does make him a character we have sympathy for, even as we're not sure he deserves it. Lise Hilboldt is fine as Ellie, as is Pat Hingle as the sweaty and unlikable hatch. Jon Cryer (best known for the sitcom Two and a Half Men) is one of the sons; the other, Brent Hadaway, is just as good but appears not to have pursued an acting career. The director, Michael Fields, captures the hot smothering feel of a Texas summer, but this is Ward's piece and he’s the best reason for watching. [DVD]

Tuesday, August 22, 2023


One night on a Paris street, a man on the run collides with a drunken couple and leaves a bloodstain on the woman’s dress. This is how we know that Pierre (Jean Gabin) has killed someone. In Barcelona, his wallet is stolen; left flat without money and still, he assumes, with the police looking for him, he signs up for the Foreign Legion, which was, in cultural memory at least, the place for desperate men to get a new start in life. Pierre becomes friends with a handful of men including Fernando Lucas (Robert Le Vigan), whom all the men like, partly because he seems to have money to burn. But Pierre comes to suspect that Fernando is actually a cop on his tail and after a bar brawl, he manages to have Fernando transferred to a different company. Soon, Pierre meets and falls for an Arabian dancing girl named Aisha (Annabella) but before long Fernando is back on the scene and they briefly squabble over Aisha before the two are thrown together again defending a fort in the desert from the enemy (I was never clear if they were revolutionaries or bandits or just an enemy tribe) where their personal conflict has to take a back seat to defense and survival, and Fernando comes to see Pierre in a different light. This felt to me like a cross between Les Miz and BEAU GESTE: Javert chasing Valjean in the Foreign Legion. I have a weakness for desert adventure films of the classic era, but this one takes a while to actually get to the desert. Before that, it's a kind of noirish character study, though we never really get to know either Pierre or Fernando very well. For me, one of the big weaknesses of the film is that we know nothing about the murder that Pierre committed. He doesn't seem like the killer type, and we're led to think that the killing was justified, but we never know. This also makes Fernando's single-minded search a bit inexplicable. But I guess it's all about the archetypes. Gabin is fine but Le Vigan is even better, livelier as an actor and more interesting as a character. In the end, the story is just as much about Fernando as it is about Pierre. Directed by Julien Duvivier (PEPE LE MOKO) with an interesting visual style. Pictured from left are Gabin and Le Vigan. [DVD]

Friday, August 18, 2023


During the first 15 minutes, we are introduced to a sizable cast of characters. At the center is Baturin (Akim Tamiroff), the head of illegal activities in Chinatown but also a contributor to local charities. His main assistant is a man known only as the Professor (J. Carroll Naish). Baturin and his men are terrorizing Chinatown merchants into paying protection money, but Dr. Ling (Sidney Toler) rebels. Ling's daughter Mary (Anna May Wong) is a surgeon who is about to leave the local hospital to go to China with her lawyer boyfriend Bob Li (Philip Ahn) and oversee medical services in the war against the Japanese. One night, at a boxing match set up as a benefit for Chinatown playgrounds, gangster Mike Gordon (Anthony Quinn) double-crosses Baturin by fixing a match, so Baturin orders a hit on Gordon. But the Professor sees an opportunity to get rid of Baturin and partner up with Gordon to run the show, so instead they hit Baturin in an incident that happens one night right in front of Ling's store. When Baturin is badly hurt, Mary fears that her father had something to do with it, so she asks to be Baturin's surgeon. The operation is a success and when he is sent home to recuperate, Mary goes along to see him through his convalescence. Baturin, who wants to reform, soon begins to have special feelings, somewhere between romantic and paternal, for Mary, and she comes to feel protective of him. Of course, Gordon and the Professor are biding their time, kicking their protection racket into high gear as they wait to finish off Baturin. This B-thriller came from an A-studio, Paramount, so it feels a notch above the average B-movie of the day. The sets are good and the acting from character actor pros like Tamiroff and Naish is fine. Even the screenplay is pretty solid. It's nice to see Asian actors like Wong and Ahn here, though we still get some yellowface with Sidney Toler essentially doing his Charlie Chan character as a shopkeeper. Also with Roscoe Karnes, Bernadene Hayes and Ray Mayer in semi-comic relief parts. I’m still not a big fan of Wong's (pictured above with Ahn) but her stolid woodenness fits her role here. [Criterion Channel]

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

BRICK BRADFORD (1947 serial)

Dr. Tymak is in the midst of inventing a missile-intercepting ray which might be a step toward world peace; however, if it fell into the wrong hands, it could be used for sinister purposes. Handsome adventurer Brick Bradford (Kane Richmond) and his associates (scientist Dr. Salisbury, his daughter June, and all-around sidekick Sandy) are called on to protect Tymak and his men, whose experiments take place in an isolated house in the wilderness. But soon, the middle of nowhere is like Grand Central Station when Laydron and his crook buddies move into a cabin nearby with the intention of stealing the ray to sell it to the ubiquitous "foreign power" which is always an off-screen presence in these serials. Tymak uses a rare mineral which he has named lunarium—he obtained it from a meteorite and now needs more, but it only exists on the moon. By chance, Tymak has invented the Crystal Door, an "entrance to the fifth dimension," through which one can pass and wind up on the moon. Our heroes head there followed quickly by Laydron and his thugs, where they all wind up at the mercy of Queen Khana, ruler of Lunarland, who assumes they are members of a rebel group who have been sent into exile. But they manage to get some lunarium from a volcano and make it back to Earth. Next destination, through an invention called the Time Top (shaped like the toy): 200 years in the past, to find an important scientific document that was buried with some pirate treasure. Of course, the bad guys manage to follow there as well. Finally, back in the present day, Byrus, one of Tymak's trusted colleagues, betrays him to help Laydron get the missile interceptor.

This 15-chapter serial is known among fans for its distinct three-part structure: on the moon, in the past, and back in present. Three screenwriters are credited so it is often assumed that each one wrote primarily one section. The plus is that this structure does make Brick Bradford a little unusual. The minus is that after the novelty of the moon and the past, the last 5 or 6 chapters revert to the usual serial shenanigans and drag interminably. Kane Richmond is one of my favorite B-leads of the classic era and stars in two of my favorite serials, THE LOST CITY and SPY SMASHER; he’s a smidge older here but still in good hero shape. Busy character actor Rick Vallin (pictured above to the left of Richmond) plays Sandy and pulls off the rare feat of balancing comic relief with serious ass-kicking ability. The two have good chemistry and John Merton (as Tymak) is a better-than-usual egghead figure. The rest of the acting is lackluster. Linda Johnson as June is barely present. The villains are so bland, they almost don't seem villainous. Especially disappointing is Charles Quigley—he was fine as one of the heroes in DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE, but as Laydron, he blends in with his henchmen. 

The Crystal Door effect is primitive but it works, though the moon and past-time settings are not so effective—the typical California exteriors with cheap interiors. The last half consists of captures and escapes, though Byrus's switch to the dark side juices things up for a little while. The banter between Richmond and Vallin, though not exactly witty, is fun. The chapter-ending cliffhangers are so-so; they include potential death by cold, death by death ray, and death in a burning building. The chases and fisticuffs are about average; in a later chapter, one character even says, "Here we go again!" as he leaps at a bad guy. Oh, and for good measure, there’s an invisibility device that one around one’s neck. The bad guys are a dumpy lot, and the moon folk are dressed in capes and white t-shirts that do not flatter them. Despite the novelty of the first seven or eight chapters, I would only recommend this to people who are already fans of the serials. [YouTube; I opted to watch a colorized version of this despite my dislike of colorization because it looked slightly better than the various black & white prints floating around out there]

Monday, August 14, 2023


The wealthy Rip Van Brett was taken seriously ill but recovered thanks largely to his personal nurse Anne Darrow. The two have fallen in love and Rip has brought Anne to his family mansion in Manhattan for their wedding. Rip's half-sister Caroline, simple but kind, is happy for them, but his other half-sister Victoria is on fire with anger. She thinks Rip is marrying beneath his station to a gold digger, and is particularly upset that Rip is giving the family's valuable pearls to Anne when she insists that they should belong to her. But all her attempts to stop the marriage, including spitefully ordering the organist to stop playing the wedding march, fail. We learn a few things during the wedding: Victoria does not hide her distaste for Anne from anyone, least of all Anne; John Lucas, the doctor Anne worked for and a friend of Rip's, was (and may still be) in love with Anne, and the feeling may have been reciprocal; some years ago, Caroline wanted to marry but Victoria was able to scotch that and Caroline has remained a lonely and passive inhabitant of the house ever since. Most importantly, we learn that there is a secret soundproof locked room, behind two doors, which Victoria's father had built to escape the street sounds of Manhattan, and which Victoria locked Caroline in as punishment many years ago, and the threat of that room keeps Caroline subservient to Victoria. After their marriage, Anne tries to talk Rip into leaving the mansion but Victoria forces him into staying in the house to serve as the estate manager, holding over him the fact that she controls the family money. Anne begins visiting John to vent about her intolerable situation, and soon Victoria plants doubts in Rip's mind about Anne’s faithfulness. Eventually, Victoria overplays her hand and Rip finally decides to leave, but Victoria has one more plan: lock Anne away in the double door room to make it look like she's run off with John.

This little-known Gothic melodrama (at various times, it made me think of GASLIGHT, REBECCA, and THE LITTLE FOXES) is a gem. Based on a play, it is fairly stagy, with most of the action taking place in the mansion, but the tension builds throughout with little relief, comic or otherwise, until the climax which apparently was considered quite shocking on the Broadway stage. It's effective here, too, even though it leads to a rather abrupt end. It's got atmosphere and bad behavior to burn, but its secret weapon is Mary Morris who plays Victoria (and also played her on stage). She takes her villainy seriously, perhaps a bit too much as when it's over, you may look back and think of her as having given a strident one-note performance. But she is still very effective, getting help from the director who often fills the screen with a shadowy, sinister close-up of her scowling face. The rest of the cast is threatened with being wiped off the screen by her presence, but most of them hold their own. Kent Taylor, who wound up as a bland B-character actor, shows handsome leading man potential here as Rip; Evelyn Venable, whose career peaked that same year as Fredric March's leading lady in DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, makes a good damsel in distress; Anne Revere is excellent as the put-upon Caroline whom you keep hoping will show some spine. New Zealand actor Colin Tapley is good as John, though I wish he'd gotten a little more screen time. Also with Guy Standing and Halliwell Hobbes. This Paramount film has been unearthed by Kino Lorber on Blu-ray and I highly recommend this for classic film buffs. Pictured are Venable and Morris. [Blu-ray]

Thursday, August 10, 2023


The young and callow aristocrat Tony (James Fox) seems to have no visible means of support, except for being part of some vague plan to clear jungles in Brazil to build cities. On Tony's first day in his ritzy but empty new townhouse, Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), the manservant he's hired, arrives to find Tony in a sitting room, passed out in the noonday sun. On the surface, their relationship is pretty strictly master and servant, but we can tell from the start that Barrett has designs on Tony, not necessarily sexually, but in terms of power dynamics, with Barrett carefully studying Tony's ways and moods. Barrett gets a bit cocky with Tony, though never enough that Tony feels the need to discipline him—indeed, we get the impression that Tony has very little gumption or is passionate about anything, even seeming rather middling toward his blond upper-class girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig). Soon, Barrett gets Tony to hire Vera (Sarah Miles) as a maid, claiming she's his sister, though we know that she's really Barrett's lover, and soon Tony's lover as well. When Tony and Susan return from a weekend house party, they find Barrett and Vera romping in the master’s bedroom. The truth comes out about Vera, as does the truth about Tony and Vera, leading Susan to leave. Tony fires Barrett who soon comes back groveling for his job. Tony rehires him, but very quickly, in a scene right out of Edward Albee, their roles begin to reverse, with Barrett the strong one and Tony dependent on Barrett.

This psychological thriller, in velvety black & white, is a bit drawn out (the 2 hour movie could stand to be about 15 minutes shorter) but builds a slowly menacing atmosphere. Though we can predict from early on that the servant will gain control of the master, their relationship does go through stages with Tony at one point seeming to shake himself out of monied decadence and stop Barrett's plan. But that turns out to be just a bump in the road to the end which leaves no doubt about who is in control. There is little action here—some reviews refer to an orgy in the film's last section, but it's just hookers lying around a drawing room, mostly drunk or high, with not a speck of flesh or lascivious behavior to be seen—so the acting and camerawork must do the heavy lifting, and for the most part, successfully. Fox (pictured to the left of Bogarde) looks and acts like the perfect stereotype of the upper-class dissipated twit, a bit like Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster if he'd been getting high and was being gaslighted by Jeeves. (I guess at times, Jeeves could be accused of gaslighting Bertie, but for his own good.) Craig, whose character is a little underdone, is fine. Bogarde and Miles both come off as human and even complex, and not just cardboard villains. Most of the movie is set in the townhouse but rarely seems stagy. There are flowers present everywhere but I couldn't decide if that meant something symbolic or not. It's persuasively set in the winter; there is real snow outside and real breath that hangs in the air. A breathy song called "All Gone" sung by Cloe Laine is used effectively throughout, and there's one song performed in a bar by a gruff folk singer that has the line, "Ride me, baby, til my face turns cherry red"—I only know that because I had the subtitles on. [Blu-ray]

Tuesday, August 08, 2023


High-powered businessman Jerry Stafford (Fredric March) is expected at a meeting but when he fails to show up, his secretary Julia Traynor (Claudette Colbert) takes the reins and gets Jerry's agenda passed without him. We soon learn that Jerry and Julia spend a lot of time together which fires up the jealousy of her boyfriend Philip (Monroe Owsley). One working Saturday, Jerry asks Julia to break her lunch date with Philip for lunch with him, followed by attending the big college football game. She agrees to lunch (in his office at his desk) but says she must go to the game with Philip. Reluctantly Jerry calls a rather slatternly looking woman from his little black book to go to the game. Both couples wind up at a roadhouse after the game and the jealous Philip decides to marry Julia the next day. When Jerry finds out, he fires Julia but hires Philip as a business consultant. By their first anniversary, Philip and Julia are financially comfortable, but Philip has a mistress, and he is awaiting word on a big deal that Jerry was against. At a dinner party, Jerry sees Julia, intuits how unhappy she is, and kisses her, asking her to go on a cruise with him. That night, Philip confesses to Julia that his big deal went badly, and he's lost money that he stole from others, including Jerry. Julia goes to Jerry to ask for the money to bail out her husband; he gives it to her while also comparing her to a common whore: "At least the women in the streets don't pretend to be decent." The situation among the three grows more unsettled until gunplay enters the picture.

This melodrama plods along with unsympathetic characters and predictable plot turns, but the pre-Code aspects of the film may prove interesting to fans of that era. Morally, no one is exactly a paragon of virtue here, as the possibility that Julia would have had sex with Jerry in exchange for money is strongly implied. March is the best actor here, looking fairly dashing with a mustache and slicked-back hair. The more I see of Colbert, the less impressed I am. She's adequate here, but never makes her character feel emotionally involved enough to care much about. Monroe Owsley, looking at times like Pee-Wee Herman, continues his string of passive, dissipated men. Better is Charles Ruggles in a fairly well fleshed-out comic relief sidekick role. The small role of his scatterbrained girlfriend is played by Ginger Rogers, whom I did not recognize at all. The film's pace is on the slow side until the ending which feels a bit too fast. Directed by Dorothy Arzener, one of the era's few female filmmakers. Watchable but not a must-see. Pictured are March and Colbert. [Criterion Channel]

Thursday, August 03, 2023

GALILEO (1975)

For two years in the mid-1970s, the American Film Theatre produced a number of films based on well-regarded stage plays, featuring name stars in the leads. Some, like Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (with Katherine Hepburn) and The Iceman Cometh (with Lee Marvin), were basically shot as if being performed on a stage, with camera movement and close-ups included to make it more film-like. Some, like this adaptation of Bertolt Brechet's play from 1945, are a little less stagy while retaining a play-like performance. The opening shots are from the catwalks above a theater stage where we see technicians prepping the performance space on a stage, but after three choirboys sing an introduction, the rest of the movie is more or less naturalistic (except when those boys keep returning to provide exposition or commentary). We begin in 1609, when Galileo is a famous math teacher who is already a believer in the Copernican heliocentric theory of our cosmos (with the sun at the center rather than the earth) which goes dangerously against church wisdom. The town fathers of Padua back him as long as he helps keep their coffers full with money from his inventions. We see him sell them the idea of the telescope without bothering to tell them that it had already been invented elsewhere. By 1610, headlines state that Galileo has "abolished Heaven" because people using telescopes have discovered celestial phenomena that prove his heliocentric theory is correct. When the church begins to attack him, he assumes that having demonstrable truth on his side will let him win the day, and even the official Vatican astronomer says that Galileo is right. But the church declares his theory to be heretical, and that unrestricted research is dangerous. Will Galileo recant, as he is asked to by the Pope? 

This is largely a kind of greatest hits version of Galileo's life, featuring a string of incidents separated sometimes by several years, beginning when he was in his 40s and continuing to 1642, the year of his death. My summary may make it sound a bit too educational (i.e., boring) but it’s not. Chaim Topol (Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) embodies Galileo quite well; he's earthy, intellectual, and very human, especially at the end when he expresses his sorrow for recanting because he was afraid of the physical pain that might have been in store for him. The large supporting cast includes Colin Blakely, Michael Gough, Tom Conti, Edward Fox, and in what are essentially cameos, John Gielgud and Clive Revill. Revill and his wife Georgia Brown, in the most theatrical scene, are troubadours who get a musical number during an April Fool's Day revel in which they sing about Galileo's troubles ("Independent spirit spreads as do diseases"). At 150 minutes, it does drag a bit in the middle, but as experiments go, this is worth watching. It's a shame the American Film Theatre films (which were presented as Fathom Events are today, for just a couple of days at a time) didn't continue, because this one (directed by Joseph Losey) got the mix of theatre and cinema almost right, even of not all of them did. [Blu-Ray]

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

PANIQUE (1946)

Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) is a bit of a misanthropic cold fish. He makes his living as Dr. Varga, an astrologer, and is not well liked by his neighbors. Alice (Viviane Romance, pictured), a young woman just released from a 6-month stretch in prison, comes to town and moves into an apartment across an alley from Hire, and she is a bit unnerved to find Hire frequently watching her from his window. She is in a relationship with another villager, Freddy (Paul Bernard), and, as we find out, she was in prison because she took a criminal rap for him. A carnival comes to town and in the process of setting up, Mme. Noblet is found dead, murdered and half-buried, and the gossiping villagers suspect everyone. Meanwhile, the unfriendly loner Hire develops a crush on Alice and has taken to following her around town. Eventually, Hire warns her that he knows that Freddy killed Mme. Noblet and stole 700 francs from her. At first, she refuses to believe it, but soon, Freddy confesses to her that he is the murderer. Alice at first seems horrified by his confession, but before long, the two decide to frame the unlikable Hire as the killer by hiding Noblet's purse in his apartment. Things soon fall apart for all concerned.

Based on a novel by popular mystery writer Georges Simenon, this certainly skirts film noir territory in terms of themes and plot even if it doesn't have that notable urban noir look—though the village nighttime scenes are striking. No one in the central triangle is likable and I found my sympathies, such as they were, shifting from time to time. We are set up to like Alice, despite her misguided love for the slimy Freddy, but the moment when she hears Freddy's confession is one I’ll remember for a long time: as Freddy talks, the camera holds a close-up on her face as she seems to be shocked by what she hears, but we soon realize that what she was really pondering was how to help Freddy get away with it. Our feelings about her go through another shift later and the final 15 minutes becomes a study in mass hysteria. The director, Julien Duvivier, is clearly critiquing the witch hunt/lynch mob mentality that undoubtedly affected many French citizens during the war, primarily with regard to Jews but also to punishing supposed collaborators, but the movie never becomes coldly symbolic as we come to have complicated feelings about most of the characters. The three chief actors are all fine, especially Romance, with Simon having the toughest character, a man we dislike while still having some empathy for him. Despite the connection to Simenon, this isn't primarily a crime film as much as a noirish psychological thriller, and a fine one. [Criterion Channel]