Wednesday 30 April 2014

Out of the Past (1947)

Fanget af Fortiden
I do not know where to start with my review of ”Out of the Past”. I am still juggling the pieces around in my head and there is a real risk that this will be one of the more chaotic reviews. Right now the only word that is really in focus in my mind is:


This got to be one of the best, maybe the best, film noir so far. I thought it would be difficult to top the other noirs on the List but I think this one just did.

I have already seen a few movies from director Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie”). He excels in dark ambience, but his previous films were cheap productions and you notice it. Not so “Out of the Past”. Here production value is much higher on every account, not least on the actors, and matching Tourneur’s skill for dark ambience with production value is a marriage in heaven (or hell in a sense). There is a pervading gloom and fatalism in the film that can only be described as film noir. In fact if somebody would ask me to point out the quintessential film noir I would not hesitate to name this one.

Take Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), the lead character. He is a tough nail on the outside and really smart on the workings of the underworld, but beneath the surface he is a romantic with integrity. Add to that a casual and fatalistic attitude and you have the archetypical noir hero. Jeff is really super cool about his “job”. Not that he is careless, not at all, but he is so dry and casual that he screams competence. That is also necessary because he is up against some badass crooks.

While it is pretty clear that they belong to the shadier side of society it is not so clear from the outset exactly what they are and do. That is part of the Noir feel. We are always a little off-balance about what is going on and we only gradually learn who these people are. Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) is the king pin of course. He is so sleek in his expensive suit and shiny, tight haircut. He has the joviality of the super-rich and a brutality to match. A dangerous man to cross clearly, but exactly how dangerous we only gradually learn. He has a goon named Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine), but he is harmless compared to his dame.

Talk about an angel and a devil is the same person. Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat is everything you want from a noir femme fatale. Of course she is divinely beautiful and able to get into the pants of any man simply by looking at him. But she is also a vicious and cynical bitch who has no loyalty and no scruples whatsoever as long as she gets what she wants. Clearly she means disaster for every man who gets within her reach. This is literally so, I think I can say without spoiling too much.

So, what exactly is the plot of this film? This is where things get complicated and frankly I will not reveal too much about it because the unfolding plot is one of the many assets of this film. It is complicated, not with as many loose ends as “The Big Sleep”, but close. The difference is that events here are not as random. Everything makes sense; we are just not a witness to everything.

Jeff Baily lives in a small town and has a respectable job running a gas station, when a person appear Out of the Past. Almost like a rerun of the opening of “The Killers”. The person is the goon Stefanos and the message is that the boss wants to talk with him. The first half of the film is then Jeff telling his new girlfriend why it is he has to meet this man (Whit) in narrated flashback of course. Jeff took a job as a private detective to find and bring back Whit’s woman (Kathie) and the 40.000$ she took with her. Jeff and his partner took the job, but when he finally found her in Acapulco he forgot all about the job and ran away with her. That ended… badly, and now he is hiding in this little town in the middle of nowhere.

The second half of the movie is what happens after Whit and Jeff have a little talk. Whit is not mad at all. Kathie came home and everything is good. Now he just needs Jeff for a little job concerning some tax papers  that needs to disappear. But Jeff can smell a trap when it is thrown into his face and he spends the rest of the film trying to avoid it. This part is really intense. It is murder mystery, strange alliances, backstabbing and beautiful dames. All you could ever want from a noir.

It is so curious to see Robert Mitchum as a young man. I am so used to see him in his old age that it is really weird to think of him as young. But he was quite dashing. He looked very much like a young John Cusack. Apparently this movie kick-started his acting career and I understand why. He fitted his part like a hand in a glove.

This is also the first time I see Kirk Douglas on a List movie. Yes, the super star who would play Spartacus with his famous chin and win a ton of awards here and there. But in “Out of the Past” his is in a supporting role as villain and man he was good at that. It is no wonder that his son worked so well as a Wall Street shark.    

The more I think about it the more I am convinced that the people who defined Film Noir simply used “Out of the Past” as a template. If it looks like “Out of the Past” it is noir. Man, this film is awesome.

Friday 25 April 2014

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Monsieur Verdoux
Charles Chaplin and the little tramp are synonymous so much that we often simply call the little tramp Charlie Chaplin. To think of Chaplin as any other character simply feels wrong. Talk about a type cast character! However Chaplin actually did a number of movies after he let the little tramp to rest with “Modern Times”. Most famous is probably “The Dictator”, which for some obscure reason is not on the list. That is however his later “Monsieur Verdoux”.

Chaplin himself is Monsieur Verdoux, a little elegant if somewhat cynical French gentleman. You would think that this character could not be further from the tramp character, but in fact as the movie goes on the tramp becomes more and more apparent. Try as he may, Chaplin could never escape the tramp.

Oh, and Monsieur Verdoux is also a mass murderer specializing in rich, middle aged women…

You did not see that one coming, did you?

Chaplin took a story (originally from Welles) about a real life French murderer and turned it into a comedy with a sharp social bite. Yes, Verdoux is busy (very busy) attending to all his women. For each he has a different character he plays and a different angle to his ploy, but it is all about getting access to the money before he sends them off to the next world. It is all business. He used to be a bank clerk before getting laid off and he goes about his new profession in a very professional businesslike manner. The profit he invests on the stock market and from time to time he returns to his family, his invalid wife and little son, who only know that he is busy doing some sort of business. It is really just a job that happens to involve robbing and killing middle aged women.

We see him in action and he is really good at it. So charming. And frankly those women that he finds almost have it coming. They all seem air-headed and horrible and in some sick way he might even be doing us all a favor. This setup is all very bizarre and only a comedic genius like Chaplin could get away with making it funny, but it may very well be the bizarreness itself that makes it so funny. Because it is funny. It is almost an elegant version of Groucho Marx conning Margaret Dumont in all her incarnations.

Hilarious it gets when he is finally overmatched. Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye) is a particularly feisty widow, who also happens to be rich after winning the lottery. Verdoux is acting an elegant sea captain (convenient for staying away for long periods) who is entertaining her and trying to ingratiate himself into her possessions. But although she may seem and act airheaded Annabella is also cunning and quite a match for Verdoux. His sneaky attempts at killing her all fails spectacularly resulting in much hilarity and I frankly do not know which is the better (or worse), the poison attempt inadvertently foiled by the unlucky maid, or the disastrous boat trip. It is here in the boat that Verdoux resembles the little tramp the most. Well, he is the little tramp when he tries to look innocent.

After the failure with Mrs. Bonheur Verdoux tries his luck with another rich widow, Mrs. Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom). This works out brilliantly until Annabella shows up at the wedding and hilarity ensues. Verdoux’s desperate flight may be the funniest scene in the movie.         

Hereabouts the movie takes a more serious turn. The world is changing. At the stock market crash many people lose everything including Verdoux. We see clips of Nazis and marching soldiers and it is clear that the world is about to go to hell. We now find Monsieur Verdoux again, but a lot more down beat version of him. Apparently he lost his wife and son (!) as well as his money and the only thing left is his cynicism, but of that he has plenty. It is of course this reformed version of himself who finally gets caught and the movie finishes with the court case against him.

Chaplin uses the movie as a platform for his criticism of modern western society, that much is very clear. In the court case against him he references Fritz Lang’s “M” by letting the accused be the accuser. Where Lang questions society’s right to convict those who cannot help their actions (the sick and insane) Chaplin compares Verdoux’s own killings to the mass murder committed by state nations when fighting wars.

I can follow his criticism of capitalism as a sort of robbing and murdering. That is not so different today. But when he gets to the criticism of waging war I understand why people got furious with him. This is scarcely 2 years since the end of WWII, a war that was forced upon the allies. What did Chaplin really want from them? That they should have lain down and die? I can understand why people who had just fought a war were pretty pissed with him. 20 years later it would have worked reasonably, but not in 47.

I think the political message misfires near the end of the movie, but that is really also my only argument against the movie. Had it stopped with his arrest the movie would have been 20% better. Still I think this may be a different Chaplin movie, but it is essentially Chaplin. Verdoux is just an elegant, cultivated little tramp.

Friday 18 April 2014

Ditte Menneskebarn (1946)

Ditte Menneskebarn
”Ditte Menneskebarn” is the second special entry on the Danish edition of ”1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”. It replaces “A Matter of Life and Death”, which is an odd choice, but likely due to the overwhelming number of British movies on the list.

It was extremely difficult to find this movie. The DVD is out of print, it is not in the public domain and even those places that claimed to have it just wrote me back that they were working on it. Finally I found a streaming service that offered it only to find out that the player was incompatible with my system. It took two weeks to work it out and now, finally, I can see it. I am happy to say it was worth the effort.

“Ditte Menneskebarn” is based on a novel by Martin Andersen Nexø. He is our equivalent of John Steinbeck and wrote a number socially indignant novels around the turn of the century, a period where this kind of literature was earthshaking and revolutionary. He is probably more known for “Pelle Erobreren”, which when made into a movie won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language movie in 1988. Therefore no surprise that this is a message movie with an extra thick layer of message.   

Ditte (Tove Maës) is born out of wedlock because her mother, Sørine (Karen Lykkehus), got tumbled by the son on the farm where she served as a maid. The farmer bought Sørine’s father off with some money and Ditte is raised by her grandmother (Karen Poulsen) in utter poverty. Years later when Sørine have found a man, a small-time tinker called Lars Peter (Edvin Tiemroth), they send for Ditte and soon Ditte is the oldest child in a family of with 4 children.

While Lars Peter is complacent and clearly the good, albeit poor, father, Sørine is bitter and unhappy with her lot in life. She is obsessing about the money her father got and saved for Ditte and takes it out on Ditte. This comes to a head when Sørine seeks out Ditte’s beloved grandmother and kills her in her search for the money. Sørine spends most of the rest of the movie in prison and Ditte, betrayed by her mother and bereft of her grandmother is now, still a child, the housewife of the little family.

Together with an intermezzo with Lars Peter’s crook of a brother the little family have to leave for a another region to start new life and although things start out fine, Ditte got a position as a maid on a farm, history is about to repeat itself.

Life is hard and unfair for Ditte and her family and the message of the movie is clearly that this unfairness is wrong. It is rather heavy handed and I am not sure the movie would have worked so well today, but two things save the movie.

The first thing is Ditte herself and her siblings. As a little child Ditte is the most adorable little girl (Jette Kehlet). Just thinking about her makes me cry. She is the kind of girl you just have to reach out and hug. Later she blooms as the sweetest girl imaginable. She learns toughness but remains innocence incarnate and because we cannot help loving her, the unfairness of her lot seems so much worse. This is largely due to Tove Maës. She made a career out of playing sweet innocent girls in romantic pastoral films (much later in life she appeared in “Riget”, also on the List), but rarely with the nerve and bite evident in “Ditte Menneskebarn. Her three siblings are cut from the same stock and it is worth noting the brother Kristian. He was played by a very young Ebbe Langberg who eventually got a solid career as actor and director in and of Danish movies.

The second asset of the film is the production quality. This is a movie from 1946, Denmark has just resurfaced from the war and I had no idea resources were available to pull off a movie of this quality. Acting, direction and filming are all up to Hollywood standard and frankly far better than the typical Danish movies of the 50’ies and 60’ies. This film is a far cry from the mass-produced pastoral rom-coms that constituted at least 80% of the Danish movies of the era. And because of this excellent production the pathos never turns into sticky melodrama but remain raw and palatable.

There are two details from the movie that I would like to mention. The first is the portrait of the characters Sørine and Lars Peter. Sørine is clearly a source of grief in the family and her actions and attitudes are clearly wrong, like when she beats up Ditte and is too lazy to get out of bed herself to take care of the children. But as a nice touch we actually understand her bitterness and where it comes from. Fate has not been kind to her. She was a beautiful girl, but because she got pregnant she ended up in poverty. It was never her fault and she does not accept her lot. Unfortunately as a housewife she only has a backseat driver’s license to her fortune. She is powerless to do anything on her own and only by coercing the people around her, particularly Lars Peter, can she hope for any advancement. Unfortunately for her Lars Peter is a very different type of person. He is honest, good and generous. He lives and breathes for his family including Ditte and is willing to give people (like his scum of a brother) a chance, but he is not ambitious. He is content with life and chooses to look at what he has instead of what he does not have and so Sørine is stuck and frustrated. Later when we see Sørine again when she returns from prison she is a broken woman. As feisty and spiteful as she was it is much worse to see that broken shell of a woman.

The second detail is the (in)famous bathing scene. Late in the movie the adolescent Ditte takes a naked bath in a lake. She is beautiful and very little is hidden. This was apparently too much for the US release where this scene is cut out. That is a shame because this is actually an essential scene. It places her in juxtaposition to the farmer’s son’s hardline piety as a natural and innocent being and is a lash out against hypocrite and self-righteous bible punchers. Those in power in general and the farmers on Bakkegården in particular are violating the innocents. One could even take the symbolism even further and see the bathing scene as a kind of baptism, but a different one than that of the hardliners, especially since the talk immediately after turns to religious subjects. All that unfortunately falls flat without the bathing scene.

“Ditte Menneskebarn”, loosely translated to Ditte, Child of Man, was a lot better than I expected and one that I enjoyed watching. It is also a badass tearjerker and I cannot remember the last movie I cried this much from. I can definitely recommend watching it, but be forewarned, it is really difficult to find.

Sunday 13 April 2014

Gilda (1946)

I am not entirely sure what to think of Gilda. It leaves me rather confused, yet with a feeling that I have been distracted from the real idea of the movie. I will explain.

There are fundamentally two stories in “Gilda”. The first story, which is the one we plunge into right from the opening is that of Johnny Farrel (Glenn Ford), a gambler who, for reason he wants to keep hidden, has left America to show up in Buenos Aires. He is the man without a past. He is befriended (sort of) by a mysterious character named Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Ballin runs an (illegal) casino and hires Johnny as his assistant. However this is not the only operation Ballin runs. Apparently he is a bit of a character in the underworld of Buenos Aires, most notably the head of a resource (tungsten) cartel. Ballin has a strange relationship with Johnny. With the one hand he trusts him and with the other he seems to keep a dagger dribbling with suspicion pointed at him. His criminal activities seem to make him the bad guy and there is a crime/spy story here with Ballin and the police pitted against each other and Johnny in a limbo in between. This story however fizzles when Ballin fakes his own death to go on some planned, secret mission only to show up in the end.

The other story is a really weird love/hate story between Johnny and Gilda (Rita Hayworth), a mysterious woman that suddenly appears as Ballins new wife. She has as veiled a background as Johnny, but it is clear that they know each other. The next hour of the movie is essentially a dance of mutual torture between Johnny and Gilda with Ballin as the odd third player. Gilda and Johnny are at each other’s throat with a vengeance. Gilda provokes Johnny at every opportunity she gets while Johnny tries to keep her at an arms distance. Meanwhile Ballin seems to be wielding Gilda as a weapon against Johnny. He may have picked her up simply to have something on him, but on the other hand Ballin is also very protective of Gilda.

Halfway through this all changes when Ballin presumably dies. At that point Johnny assumes Ballins character, both in terms of his businesses and Gilda. Instead of pushing her away he does the opposite. He builds a prison for her, one she just cannot escape. They love each other and they hate each other and it consumes them both.

The second story is clearly more important than the first, but even the second one is obscure. We never find out why Gilda and Johnny are at each other’s throat, except that something clearly happened in the past. The role of Ballin is also rather obscure. To me he is like a demonic symbol of the fascist coldness Johnny is trying to assume in relation to Gilda and his fate at the end of the movie is like an externalization of the transformation Johnny and probably also Gilda must make to resolve their relationship.

But even that may be a distraction from the real item of this movie: Rita Hayworth. She is the centerpiece of this film that outshines everything else. Even if you are not entirely taken by her (Personally I prefer Lauren Bacall) she is set up here as the ultimate allure. Her entry in the movie says it all. That is probably the most in your face sultry entry of a femme fatale of the forties, maybe of all time. When she lifts her head, swings the hair back and look at Johnny you know where the cliché is coming from. This film is all about making Gilda a.k.a. Rita look as hot and desirable as it is human possible and a lot of the explanation for the rather illogical behavior of the men around her is depending on this effect. In short she drives men crazy and that brings us to the classic noir motive of the femme fatale. By all rights it should work here. Rita Hayworth is stunning no matter how you put it and she has sex appeal in spades. The problem is just that it is almost too obvious. This is Hayworth’s movie and we have to get the full dose including three musical pieces. There is no subtlety there. If she had been slightly less of a woman it would not have worked and even so she makes much of the story around her look like a distraction.

A lot of the noir elements work well. The seedy underworld. Mysterious people with hidden, unsavory agendas and beautiful women. We also have the steady and fatalistic deroute to disaster and certainly the flawed (anti)heroes. I certainly have no complaints with all that. George Macready is excellent and his Ballin Mundson is easily my favorite character. He is ice-cold and menacing, almost supernatural as a phantom of the opera residing above the casino. Also it is difficult for me to have a problem with Rita Hayworth. She does her best to be a beauty to die for and her songs are good. As soon as I heard “Put the blame on mame” something clicked and this song fell into place.

The problem with the movie is just that the story is a mess. Even if the criminal story is a MacGuffin, that still leaves us with Johnny and Gilda´s dysfunctional relationship. I have tried explaining the plot of this story element as Ballin being a vengeful part of Johnny’s subconsciousness. When he disappears Johnny takes on his personality and Johnny becomes Ballin only to take his body back in the end. But even that stretch seems a bit thin. Let me just admit that I am not entirely sure what this movie is about except showcasing Rita Hayworth. But that it also does very well.

Saturday 5 April 2014

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Det Er Herligt at Leve
It is no secret that I am a bit of an ignorant when it comes to classic movies. I freely admit it, but sometimes it apparently takes staggering proportions. When I started this project back in 2010 (partly to alleviate this gap in my general education) I tried to make my wife watch some of these movies with me. That was not a great success, but she did mention that an oldie she liked was “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I had never even heard of the movie. To say she was surprised is an understatement and I agreed to remedy this problem right away. So I saw this movie for the first time only a few years ago.

Before getting thrown out of town I have to mention that while this movie has been a Christmas staple in many countries for several generations it was never so in Denmark. There are the usual classics, but not this one. I cannot explain why, that is just how it is. So I feel excused. It does not change however that everybody and their mother know this movie by heart (apparently) so there is little point in referring the story.

Instead I will mention a few things that struck me watching it, first time and now this second time. My points may be a bit naïve because I do not have a history with this film, but sometimes there are advantages to that.

First thing is that I actually think it is quite a sad movie. I do like it, let me just say that for the record, but there is also something a bit depressive about it. Mainly because I feel terribly sorry for our George Bailey (James Stewart). He is a man with dreams for himself. He knows what he wants from life and he wants it badly, but again and again he is thwarted in getting that. Many people do not get what they want, that is the nature of life, but with George it seems so unfair. He could and should go travelling and get a college degree and pursue he own agenda but constantly other people need him and he has to sacrifice what he feels his life is about simply because he is a decent man and cannot let people down. Surprisingly he gets no or only little sympathy from family and friends and just to make things worse, his brother with no such heartfelt wishes, get all that and more. I know that the morale of the movie is that what he gets instead, a beautiful family and tons of friends, is the better deal, but I understand why he feels life is screwing him over. Not even a honeymoon will they let him have.

My feelings for George go a bit further than that. When things come to a head on Christmas Eve because Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) in his absentmindedness loses 8000$ on the day the bank examiner shows up, George sees his life wash away. He is a broken man and I feel for him because I have been there myself. I am no George Bailey, but around Christmas two years ago my life was in similar disarray because of an economic issue and I fear my relation to my family was not so different from George’s. My angel was not Clarence (Henry Travers), but my boss at the office and I definitely got to see life in a different light. When George yells at his wife and children I feel his pain I think more than most. Is there anything worse than Christmas hubbub when your life is falling apart?

Another observation is that there is a political message in the film that is not unfamiliar today. George Bailey runs the “Building and Loan”, a small bank/mortgage institution who offers mortgages to people with little or no collateral. Before the financial crisis those institutions would gladly finance anything and anybody, but since then things have become much different. In Denmark there are entire regions where you cannot get a mortgage at all because those institutions consider the prospects of selling the house again too poor. This of course makes it difficult to sell a house in the first place and so they basically ruin those regions. From this movie and others (“The Best Years of Our Lives” for instance) I get the impression that the post-war situation was quite similar. It takes small banks like “The Building and Loan” who work locally to break that spiral and lift a town. I think there are some financial institutions and maybe politicians who would benefit from watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Of course you could also turn it around and say that such a small and local bank is too vulnerable to losses. I doubt an Uncle Billy could close a major bank.

It struck me this time round that other movies have borrowed heavily from “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I am thinking specifically of one of my personal favorite franchises “Back to the Future”. The experience Marty McFly gets when he arrives in the “present” of what happens to his town if a certain element was changed in the past is eerily similar to the tour George Bailey gets. The casinos of course, but that scene on the cemetery is almost a direct copy. So “It’s a Wonderful Life” has effectively introduced a classic time travel trope. Who would have guessed?

I should say a bit about the movie in general. I liked it more second time than first time, maybe because it struck a chord with me this time, but also because I felt able to see through the thick layer of “Capra-corn” I felt loaded the movie the first time. This is not just a movie about how important family is and all those classic and conservative values. There is a heart and a soul in it. Something about that being generous of mind and action is indeed worthwhile. The religious element is actually toned down. He is not getting 8000$ from Heaven and he is not getting a meaningless “pray-and-things-will-workout”. The angel is just an agent to make him reconsider his life and that is actually quite elegantly done. I think the message is human decency and maybe a reminder to not let your finances depend on a guy who does not even remember why he put those knots on his fingers.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

The TSorensen Movie Award part 4

The TSorensen Movie Award part 4
The fourth and final award covering the first 200 movies on the list goes to the Empowered Lead Actress.

Something that generally annoys me in movies is when the women are merely accessories, their roles defined singularly from the viewpoint of the male actors. I know, it goes a lot deeper than just gender roles, but it annoys me when they take away not only the brains from a girl, but also the will to do anything on her own. I lose interest in that type of women in movies as well as in reality and it is a general weakness of older movies that these women are so prevalent. Women in movies can be a lot more than a romantic interest or a damsel in distress and I would like to celebrate the few movies who present us with strong leading ladies. I am not necessarily talking about dominating women, but rather the act where the female character is the star in her own right.

As much as I like noir and the women in noir, they do tend to be objects with the purpose to lead men astray. That unfortunately rules out some spectacular acts.

Anyway, the nominees are:

Bette Davis in “Jezebel”. This vengeful and spoiled character singlehandedly carries this costume pre-Gone-with-the-wind drama. I do not like her character, but man she is powerful.

Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind”. Hard to ignore Scarlett. She is Julie of “Jezebel” powered up a factor 2 or 3. Again, I do not like her, but that hardly matters. She is a power house.

Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce”. A rare noir with a female lead and Male Fatale’s. This genre reversal is still a superb noir and Joan Crawford has never been better.

Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas”. Frankly it could have been almost any of her roles, she is always at the center of events. In “Stella Dallas” her character has so many facets that we get to see an entire persona for better or worse and it may be her most poignant role.

Louise Brooks in “Die Büchse der Pandora”. Lulu may be an object to the men around her and naïve to boot, but the angle of the film is just a bit different here. We experience the world and tragedy of Lulu from her perspective and Louise Brooke becomes iconic.

Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz”. We may not get the deepest insight into Dorothy’s persona, but less can do. She still carries this film and we get to see a world, not from a woman’s but from a child’s perspective. And the singing is divine.


And the winner is:


Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce”.

I loved the film, but mostly I was knocked out of my socks by Crawford. The performance is so strong and complete. She is a woman maneuvering in a world full of sharks and she stands up to them and faces them down.