Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Naked Spur (1953)

Død eller Levende
”The Naked Spur” is the second collaboration between director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart to make the List (the former was ”Winchester ´73) and this time the stakes are upped with some glorious Technicolor.

James Stewart is this time a rancher turned bounty hunter to make enough money to buy back the ranch his unfaithful wife sold while he was off fighting a war. The man he is hunting is an old acquaintance, though no friend, of his and it is quite impersonal. Howard Kemp, as he is called just want the money.

The movie plunges us right into the thick of it as Howard is closing in on his prey. He enlists the help of an old prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and soon they have Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) cornered. This is the moment where Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) shows up. He is an army lieutenant who has been discharged in disgrace and is certified unreliable (He got a paper saying that), but he arrives at just the right time to root out Ben. They catch him with a little bonus price as it turns out Ben has brought along a girl, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh).

The rest of the movie is essentially Ben trying to escape his captors using all the cunning of his devious mind. No trick is too cheap. Anything that can set his captors up against each other is worth a try. First shot is the reveal that there is a price on his head and a substantial one at that, 5000$ to be precise, which Howard sort of forgot to mention to his two helpers. Ben appeals to Jesse’s lust for gold and he sets Lina on to Howard and Ralph. In the end it is almost working and in the ensuing gunfight several of the characters dies. Only Lina’s rebellion saves Howard.

There are ties to a well-known theme of greed where three men strives to win a fortune. The two first dies for their greed, while the third by giving up on the price survives and win another unforeseen reward.  Howard could take Ben back to town to get his money, but decides to give up on it and go to California with Lina instead.

There are good things and less good things to say of this movie and the result is on of mixed feelings.

The very first thing you notice is the glorious filming. The mountains in Technicolor are the real stars of this movie. Every single shot is using the terrain to the utmost and in these colors the vistas are breathtaking. You would be excused to think that Technicolor was invented to showcase such landscape. The impressive thing is that almost all the movie was filmed on location. That may not sound like a big deal today but Technicolor equipment is extremely cumbersome and requires an insane amount of light. I am not sure who did the actual filming, but the only other person who could have pulled this off would have been Jack Cardiff.

I also liked the story arch. We may think that we are getting an early climax with the shoot-out, but that only marks the beginning of the trouble. Greed is the real enemy and that is a lurking disease. Of course it leads up to a traditional finale, but the way there is interesting.

Then there is the acting. Oh boy, oh boy. The acting and ultimately the direction is dilettantish on the verge of the cartoonish. Every sentence uttered is so exaggerated and staged that I fear they had a bunch of idiots in mind when they considered the target group of the movie. Ralph hitting on Lina, Lina upset about the shooting, Ben plotting against his captor, Jesse mumbling about gold and Howard crying for his lost wife and ranch. They are literally screaming these thing in the face of the audience and making themselves caricatures of their characters. This started already in the opening and they never let up. As the movie progressed I found it more and more difficult to cope with and it ended up bothering the crap out of me.

I felt sorry for James Stewart. He is an actor I always like, but with this direction he fell flat. That is quite unusual.

I know that this being a story about greed Howard had to give up on his price to save himself, but the way it happened seemed unnecessarily dumb. Ben is dead and Howard just needs to ride back to town to cash in 5 grand. Lina wants to go with him to California to start a new life and she does not even like Ben anymore. Why not go to California with 5000$? They are essentially throwing away a fortune for no reason I can fathom, except maybe a small detour and the smell of a corpse. I dare say they probably do not smell too good themselves. We are supposed to think that Howard has to choose between greed and a free life with Lina, but I do not really see that he needs to choose. If Lina had liked Ben, yeah maybe, or if there had been some curse on the money, but as it is it just seems stupid.  

While these things bothered me a great deal I must also add that the show around the dialogue was great. There is a lot of action in this movie and a lot of nail biting and those parts are well directed. Had they all shut their mouth I would have loved this movie.

“The Naked Spur” is a movie to see, not one to listen to. Maybe I should try watching it on mute.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Wages of Fear (La Salaire de la Peur) (1953)

Frygtens Pris
”La salaire de la peur” goes under the English title of ”The Wages of Fear”. With that it should be quite clear that we are dealing with a very different movie from the last I reviewed “Roman Holiday”. In fact I believe this movie is almost the exact opposite. It is dystopic like hell.

In “La salaire de la peur” we meet a bunch of scumbags and drifters from all over the world who have ended up in a South American dump of a village. The only reason they are there seems to be that this is the end of the world. From here there is nowhere else to go unless you have lots of money, which of course nobody has. So they just hang around doing as little as possible.

One of these characters in Mario (Yves Montand). He is Corsican and as idle as everybody else. There is nothing really likable about him, yet he is our lead. He treats his girlfriend badly, abuse his friendship with Luigi (Folco Lulli) and thinks he is so awesome. When the gangster Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives in his smart suit and arrogant manners he is immediately Mario’s new best friend.

Jo is all pretense. He is completely broke and as stranded as everybody else, but acts like the king of the world and for that he gets respect and the enmity of almost everybody else, especially Luigi.

Out of the blue an opening materialize. An American oil company, as ruthless as they come, needs to transport truckloads of highly explosive and unstable nitroglycerine across a mountain to a burning oil well and they need drivers. This is ridiculously dangerous work and instead of using their own personnel the oil company needs expendables and this is where the drifters come in. They are desperate enough to jump at the chance to get money enough to get out of there to ignore the danger.

Eventually four drivers are selected, two for each truck. Mario and Jo drive one, Luigi and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), a Dutchman, drive the other. The idea is that even if one truck blows up the other might make it.

Now follows a painstakingly slow drive on poor roads. Any sudden movement might set off the explosives and kabooom! send off the drivers to another world. I will refrain from telling how that goes.

“La salaire de la peur” has a lot going for it and a lot against it.

On the downside are definitely the characters. They are all scum. Drifters, villagers, oil people, it makes no difference. There are very few likeable traits in anybody. Maybe Luigi and Bimba are slightly better people, but that is only by comparison. Mario and Jo are definitely not the kind of people you would like to call friend. That is actually okay except that they are placed in roles where we are supposed to root for them and as I do not really care if these people blow up it takes a bit off the excitement.

A second thing is the length of the movie. It is two hours and twenty minutes long and could easily have been compressed to say 100 minutes with no significant loss of content. It takes the movie 45 minutes to introduce the characters where absolutely nothing happens, but the arrival of Jo, a dance-off and the establishment that everybody are assholes is Spanish, French, German, English and likely a few other languages. It is simply too slow

Then there is the fact that my copy was in very poor condition. Often I could not even see the faces of the characters and when I also had to focus on the Swedish subtitles (which I understand, but not without an effort) I felt I was working hard to see this movie.

Once the two teams are on the road the movie gets a lot better. The tension is thick and the movie is cleverly made to keep this always first in our minds that these trucks can blow up any second. The challenges are queueing up for them. There are parts where they have to go slow and parts where they must go fast, there is a tight hairpin curve with a rotten wooden ramp and a big rock blocking the road and each time I are on the edge of my seat.

Jo shows his true colors as a selfish coward while Mario step it up and shows some determination, and Luigi and Bimba show some resourcefulness when needed. As in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” it is in the face of adversity characters are made or break.

I like this part and it almost saves to movie. Had the movie been adequately compressed I may even have recommended it. As it is it is so bleak and cynical that you really have to be in the right mood to watch this. But for shear tension this is an expertly made movie.


Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Roman Holiday (1953)

Prinsessen Holder Fridag
In Denmark a republican is something quite different from stateside. It is a person who simply sees no point in royalty, considers royal weddings, parties and perks a ridiculous waste of money paid their royal subjects who have no other benefit than a real life glamour show. Essentially an anachronism that has outlived itself and now only survive to feed pictures and stories to women’s weeklies. I am such a person.

I make a point of avoiding movies featuring princes and princesses, especially those movies with a pink hue around the characters and the few times I have seen such trash I have struggled with gagging reflexes. It is just not my thing.

But I loved “Roman Holiday”, unabashed and completely.

This is feel good cinema of the very best kind. It is rightfully famous, even iconic and everybody owe themselves to see it.

For those few who has not seen it (which would include me until last night) you have to think something like “Coming to America” without Eddie Murphy. Ah, okay, and a few other minor details, but it is obvious where the inspiration came from.

Princess Ann (the gorgeous Audrey Hepburn) of some obscure European kingdom is visiting Rome as part of a lengthy and tiresome official roundtrip when all the ties and duties become too much for the princess. She is young and alive, but are not allowed out of her cage. So one night she runs away into the night of Rome. Unfortunately for her she had been injected with some sedative so she does not get far before she falls asleep on a fence by the sidewalk. This is where Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds her, not recognizing her as the princess. His attempts at sending her home are in vain and eventually he brings her home to his own apartment to sleep.

Next morning Joe discovers that she is a actually the very princess he was supposed to interview in his function as a journalist and he decides to scoop the world press with an exclusive behind the scene interview. To this end he needs his photographer friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert). Joe pretends not to recognize the princess as herself and that fits very well because she in turn pretends to be someone else. In fact she totally enjoys being out in town incognito, eating ice-cream, getting a haircut, seeing the sights and Joe plays along. For a full day Ann is Anya Smitty, an ordinary girl, and Joe is a fertilizer sales rep taking a day off.

They are having a blast and it is truly a day to remember. Eddie Albert is the perfect funny sidekick that gives all the events a roguish twist. Of course they fall in love, but when the day ends so does her holiday and she must return to her mansion. Joe refuses to do a story that exposes the princess. What they have together have become a lot more personal than was intended. They meet the next day for an official press conference, she a princess again and he a journalist. They share a long look, a smile and that is it. Theirs are two different worlds and what they shared is now a fond memory for each of them.

I like everything about this movie.

Audrey Hepburn was one of a kind. I frankly admit that when she does that smile I go all wobbly in my knees and as this caged-princess-discovering-life she is just perfect. There is an exuberance to her, a lust for life that I feel certain is not just an act. So is she acting or just being herself? I do not know and I do not care. I want her no other way. And that haircut makes Audrey Hepburn.

Gregory Peck is perfect as her male counterpart. He has to be both a fatherly protector and a roguish lover and I immediately thought of Cary Grant. In fact I later learned from the extra material that Grant was actually offered the role but turned it down and good for that because Peck as a Grant-light actually fits the bill even better. Thinking about it, Ann and Joe could only be Hepburn and Peck.

Then there is the tone of the movie. It is light comedy, but it avoids becoming fluff and it retains just enough tension to keep me on the toes, but must of all it projects all the joy these two are having in Rome throughout about half of the movie. This part is no filler, but actually the core of the film. They are having fun and it is so fun to watch.

There are tons of clones of this movie, but where this one really stands out is that the romantic element never goes into pink overdrive. We are not getting the Disney ending here. As much as these two people share a wonderful day together they are still rooted in reality. In 1953 this could not be more than a sweet memory, at least not where the movie ends. We are not forced to believe that one day of hanky panky leads directly to a big wedding. Something may have been seeded, but for now she is a princess and he is a journalist. Even throughout the day there is that underlying knowledge that this only works because they have given up their identity for a while. It is bittersweet, but it is what makes the story work.

Finally there is Rome itself. You could not have asked for a better set. I have been there twice and I have seen all these places, but they never looked more beautiful and romantic than here. There are times where famous locations feel forced into the story, but not here. Rome is a very natural setting for this picture. And yes, I am going to Italy this summer.

I knew “Roman Holiday” is famous and I had a feeling I would like it simply for the fact that it features Audrey Hepburn (oh dear, my knees again…), but I had not expected to be blown away. This is not my kind of movie, this is the stuff my wife watches, but I really loved “Roman Holiday”.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

New Blog on Books

New Blog on Books
Ladies and Gentlemen, my blog has spawned a little brother: The TSorensen 1001 Book Blog.

Ta-Da…. (Drumroll)

I hinted at it in my New Year’s post and now it has become reality. For Christmas my wife gave me “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” and almost on the spot I decided to extend my 1001 project to also include litterature. However I am a very slow reader, or rather I have precious little time to read so this is going to be the slowest blog in the world. I expect something like 4-5 posts per year and there is just no way I am going to read all 1001 books before I take the ticket. To me that does no really matter, I am sure it is going to be fun.

The principle is the same: I start with the first (oldest) one on the list and work my way through it.

The first book is read and the first post has been written. Let the good times roll.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Herfra Til Evigheden
With ”From Here to Eternity” I am starting to get into known territory. This is a movie I have seen before and I remember it as being good. That was years ago, before I had even considered this project. Would it hold up now, years later?

The answer is a resounding YES.

It is difficult to compete with the rose tinted patina of fond memories, but this time I have the advantage of being deeply immersed in the movie scene of the period. I can see how superior this movie is to most, if not all, other contemporary movies. This movie is an achievement on almost every account and its 8 Academy awards (and a stack of nominations) is testament to that.

“From Here to Eternity” is taking place on ground zero for that historic day, December 7th 1941, where Pearl Harbor was attacked and so it is easy to conclude that this is the story of that event. That is however not the case. Yes, Pearl Harbor gets bombed in the last ten minutes of the movie, but that is merely a backdrop for the real story, an accentuation of the environment and a feeling that the events told takes place at a turning point in history.

It is even difficult to put a finger on exactly what is the story. This is an ensemble movie that follows a number of soldier stationed at Schofield Barracks on Oahu, Hawaii. Their stories are intertwined but somewhat different although they have that in common that they are all about personal integrity.

Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) has transferred into the unit after some trouble in his previous unit. He is a first class bugler (the dude in an outfit that blows the horn), but to company commander Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) he is first of all the boxer his company needs for the upcoming competition. Trouble is Prewitt does not want to fight. Since he K.O’ed his boxing friend and brain damaged him he has refused to box. Holmes as the first class assholes he is, lets his dogs loose on him and gives him hell to force him in to joining the boxing team. Prewitt stoically endures the harassment, but is ironically undone by another fight.

Maggio (Frank Sinatra) is a jovial private in the company who immediately befriends Prewitt. He loves life and party hard and in that process makes an enemy of Sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine). He is unfortunately the warden of the stockade so when Maggio as a result of his partying (leaving guard duty to go on a binge) is sent to the stockade he is in for a hard treatment. He refuses to bent, much like Prewitt, but to a vengeful sadist like Fatso that is just an invitation to cruelty and he ends up killing him.

Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) is the assistant of Captain Holmes. It is he who in actuality runs the company since Holmes is mostly absent. Warden takes an awful lot of pride in his job and is the epitome of the army sergeant, the personified backbone of the army. At the outset he encourage Prewitt to give in to the pressure to box, but gradually he gets to respect Prewitt and the two of them becomes fast friend. This perfect soldier is however himself challenged. He falls in love with Captain Holmes pretty and promiscuous wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), which in itself is a big no-no, but he also finds himself being hypocrite of the year when is accusing her of her promiscuity, although it is that which enabled them to be together in the first place and is peanuts compared to his own transgression.

Each of these characters have to make decisions on who they are and what they believe is right and then stand by them in the face of adversity. Those are fairly big existential questions but the movies handles it beautifully. This never gets dry or theoretical, but remain all the way through interesting and relevant. It is one of those movies where time flies and all too soon you are at the end despite it being almost two hours long.

A lot of it has to do with the acting. This is a beautifully cast movie. Lancaster is spot on. Clift may not seem like your typical boxer, but he has that fifties rebellious youth about him that tells us he can be a bad boy if he wants to. Sinatra of course is a party boy as there ever was any.

The girls are a lot more than the accessory items they are made out to be. Both Deborah Kerr as Karen Holmes and Donna Reed as the dance hall prostitute have agendas of their own and will get there with or without their men. I hardly mentioned Reed, but she does have a fairly complex role as Prewitt’s girl. Is she the temptress Eve or the mother he never had? Or maybe she is just using him to fulfill her own dream of respectability?

The movie covers a lot of ground, involves a lot of characters and is fairly complex, but it all ties up in the end, though not with the traditional Hollywood happy end. It is sad but satisfying and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor seems a well-chosen metaphor for the scythe swiping through the characters of this story. They all lose something for standing up for their integrity.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It deserves all the accolade it got and I know I will get back to it frequently. Unless the rest of the decade blows me away completely I just know this one will make my top ten of the fifties.