Friday 29 May 2015

Voyage in Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (1953)

Viaggio in Italia
Okay, I admit it. I did not get this film. Someone will have to explain it to me because I am lost.

“Viaggio in Italia” is a Rossellini film about an English couple on a journey to Italy. That is in fact the English title of the movie, “Journey to Italy”. The English couple is no other than Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as Katherine and Alex Joyce and that should be enough to generate some interest. Both have a very impressive track record and their sheer presence should be enough on its own.  It almost is. I love the scathing sarcasm of Sanders and Bergman is great when she is pissed at somebody and in this movie they have ample opportunity for both.

My problem is that I do not understand the context.

Alex and Katherine has been married for some years and are now in Italy to sell the villa of an uncle. They have hardly arrived in Italy before they manage to annoy each other enough to realize that they actually despise each other. The reasons are trivial, really. Katherine is disgusted and hurt by Alex sarcasm and Alex in turn is bored and put off by what he sees as Katherine’s refusal of him. For an hour and twenty minutes they go around poking at each other when what they really needed to do is having a good long talk. I suspect Rossellini wants to oppose Northern European distance to Mediterranean openness. Certainly the two of them seem afraid to be frank with each other and when they are they are immediately rebuffed by the other. Especially Alex in classic Sanders style is knife sharp.

So, instead of talking they find their own pastimes. Katherines visits all the sights of the Napoli region. Art museums, catacombs, volcanos and Pompeii. The fumaroles in the volcano are pretty awesome, the art is spectacular and Pompeii is, well, truly awesome. I have been there and it is mind-blowing. But I fail to see the deeper meaning. Is it an exposé of Italian culture? Is it something about showing that life is bigger, much bigger, than small minded bickering? No idea.

Alex heads off to Capri to get laid. Unfortunately his lady friends are just that, friends and there is a great scene where the particular girl he has his eyes one tells him that it is going so much better with her husband. That is a great long face Mr. Sanders! Failing that he tries clubs and prostitutes, but it is not really working. At least he realizes that this is below him.

Returning to each other you would think that they have found out that they actually need or maybe even love each other, but no. Pure acid between them. Divorce time, hatred, misery. They get stuck in traffic, watch a religious spectacle. Kathrine is getting sucked up in it, they find each other and are reconciled. Just like that. Bum.


In Chinese I would say “Ha-ba…”.

Here are my lame suggestions to what just happened.

1.       Religious intervention. They needed a miracle to save their marriage and just got it. Deux ex machine.

2.       Life is bigger than bickering. Seeing all that greatness around them made them realize their troubles are peanuts.

3.       Sucking up enough Italian spirit made them shed their northern inhibitions and find their love.

4.       They knew all along they loved each other, they just need to realize it.

5.       They are bipolar and jump from one extreme to the next. Five minutes later they are going to hate each other again.

6.       The plot is just idiotic and gives us a surprise ending when we thought these two would just settle this and get on with their lives.

7.       The Catholic Church does not really believe in divorce so their condition for allowing filming a procession was that they stayed together.

I suspect the answer is somewhere else entirely. Usually when critics are super elated about a movie it is because nobody really figured out what the story was about and the movie is therefore awesome.

What I did like was the filming of Bergman and Sanders. There are a lot of facial expressions going on. Bergman in the catacombs or Sanders getting deflated on Capri are awesome to watch. Watching Rossellini film Bergman is like Sternberg filming Dietrich. You just know they had something going.

Also I liked all the scenery. Italy is a pretty and interesting place. I just failed to see the connection with the story.

Before I started the review my intention was actually to discuss dubbing. I figured I would have nothing much to say about the movie itself, but now I see that I actually did, so I will keep it short. I hate dubbing. Dubbing in the sense of changing the spoken dialogue to another language that is. It is just so stupid. Maybe it because we usually do not dub movies in Denmark, but it really annoys me. In this case the DVD I had bought turned out to be dubbed in Italian. Apparently that is one of the two original editions. Two minutes of Sanders and Bergman speaking Italian was enough for me. I had find an English version. Imagine that, George Sanders, the epitome of British sarcasm, speaking Italian! There should be fines for that sort of thing.

Please help me. What is going on in this movie? Am I just an idiot?

Monday 25 May 2015

Shane (1953)

Shane, Den Tavse Rytter
It is time for another western. The fifties seem to be the heyday of the genre and I have already been through quite a few of them. I am not as negative to the genre as some and in general the westerns from this period have been decent. Some even good. “Shane” is a middle of the pack film with outstanding elements, items which have become classic and other element which already at the time were so classic they may be considered downright cliché.

“Shane” is visually a pretty film. It is shot in Technicolor, which when done well makes the picture spring to life. The downside is that although some of the scenes are shot on location many are not and in those cases the studio environment is just a trifle too artificial. I suppose that is the price to pay for good, saturated picture and crisp sound, but by now I have seen enough location shot movies to appreciate the difference. Also I learned that this movie pioneered the wide screen format, something I have been looking forward to for a while (I have a system to project the picture up on a wall), but for whatever reason my DVD came in the standard 4/3 format. Disappointing.

Story-wise I am a bit on the fence here and that may be simply a matter of too many westerns. I am pretty sure I have seen this story before and also before 53. It is a simple story, but also the grand story of the settlement of the West (and yup, I can even from a European perspective appreciate that story). The setting is the high plains of Wyoming a decade or two after the civil war. The ranchers who wrested the land the land from the Indians are now themselves under pressure from homesteaders. Like the Indians before them the ranchers considered the open land theirs to use as they pleased for their cattle with little concern for property. Now they find homesteaders fencing off tracts of land and limiting access to water. Although in this grand land this incursion hardly register the ranchers are terribly upset by the principle and probably what they see as a future with less and less room for them and their way of life.

In “Shane” the ranchers are represented by the Ryker clan, led by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer). They are of the old west. Tough and self-contained theirs is a frontier mindset where law is dictated by the strongest and comes out of the barrel of a rifle. When they set themselves up here they were far outside civilized law and they would like to run their own affairs without interference from outsiders.

The homesteaders represents the next phase in the settlement. They come with a different attitude. Yes, they are also pioneers and are carving out a living from the wilderness, but they bring with them civilization. They form communities, raise children and bring with them different ideas. Their claim is not supported by brute strength or guns, but by law and civilization. In fact they shy away from guns and violence.

There is the conflict and the question is, has the homesteaders come too far? Out here the law is very far away and there is no protection but what they can offer themselves. Joe Starett (Van Heflin) is the focal point of the homesteaders. His is a small, but slowly prospering place that he runs with his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and son Joey (Brandon deWilde). Joe is trying to encourage his fellow homesteaders to stand up against the bullying of the Rykers, but it is a losing battle. One by one the homesteaders are giving up. Enter the mysterious stranger, Shane (Alan Ladd).

Shane is the key between the new West and the old. His roots are in the old, but when offered a job by Joe Starett he eagerly embrace this new life of hard work and pacifism. We feel there is a back story to him, but while we never learn exactly what it is we know there is a danger about him. But a danger to whom?

When it is finally time for Joe to go head to head with the Rykers and their hired gun-man Shane assumes his place (well, through a long and effective fist fight with Joe, that is) and take out the opposition in a short, but effective gun fight. Following this Shane says his goodbyes to little Joey and leaves.

The key point is that you need fire to fight fire and that there is no room for the old frontier in the civilized land. Joey is the new order and he watches the old order end and the legend of it begin.

This is so classic a setup that really I have lost count on how often it has been used. There is a lot of American self-understanding in this and it is the underlying story behind almost every western, though it is not usually spelled out this clearly. Therefore in a sense this is the quintessential Western.

Then comes the question, is this then the best rendition of that story? I am not so sure of that. Oh, there are many good moments, but a few things are also off. One thing is Alan Ladd as Shane. Considering that he is supposed to have a history as a tough gunslinger he is just way too tidy and pretty. There are absolutely no rough edges to him and only his handling of his gun indicate anything sinister. Even his outfit dammit is more at home at a rodeo than on the frontier. I would have liked him cursing or slobbing down the food or being dirty, but his hair is always perfect and his manners always impeccable. What kind of a roughneck is that?

Heflin’s Joe Starett is a lot more believable as the homesteader and so are his colleagues. They are spot on. Quirky and warm and hot headed when angry. It is fun to watch Jean Arthur now so many years after her heyday around 1940. This is a very different role for her, but she is okay in it. I might have wished for a stronger character, after all life is pretty tough out there and Marian have a very gentle character. Some decisiveness would have suited her well, but that is a detail.

The flow of the story is good and if the above details are detracting I also must give it credit for entertainment value. It was one of those movies where time flew by. So, yeah, a decent and pretty western, but also a movie that is a bit stuck in the fifties.

Thursday 21 May 2015

M. Hulot's Holiday (Les Vacances de M. Hulot) (1953)

Festlige Feriedage
Long before ”The Artist” Jacques Tati made his own tribute to the silent comedy. Or more specifically to Charles Chaplin. That reference is never far away when you watch “Les Vacances de M. Hulot”. Jacques Tati himself is a Chaplin-like character, Monsieur Hulot, whose well-meaning clumsiness causes all sorts of mishaps and trouble and this in an environment that is straight out of a Chaplin universe. There is no real dialogue in the movie, but a sound background similar to what Chaplin used in “City Lights” and “Modern Times”. Yes, people are talking, but none of it is consequential and the movie is essentially silent.

Apparently this film exist in both a French and English version and at first I was disappointed to find out that I got the English version, but I soon realized that that mattered not. French or English, the voices only set the mood and even in the English version there is a great deal of French, representing the variety of holiday makers on the beach.

All the comedy is physical, completely in line with Chaplin’s concept and mostly it is instigated by the Hulot character. This in turn means that everything depends on Tati’s own performance and whether or not Hulot as a character is funny.

Fortunately he is. At least most of the time.

The story is almost absent. Instead the movie is a series of tableaux centered on Monsieur Hulot’s holiday on the beach. He arrives in his silly little car, messes up everything and finally leaves. So much for a synopsis. His holiday takes place in a small seaside village, which I at first thought would be in Normandy (the train station is Caen), but it later turns out it is Saint-Marc-sur-Mer near St. Nazaire. Never mind. It is the kind of place with a single beach hotel, where all the guests eat their meals together, hang out in the lobby and go on picnic together. Almost like a modern day school trip. The guests are different representatives of the middle class who despite their different nationality and civil life have that in common that they are fairly new at this sort of vacation but tries to uphold a tradition seen as upper class. That makes it all rather stiff and pretentious, borderline ridiculous and into this world enter the walking disaster Monsieur Hulot.

Hulot is very polite, very insecure and very clumsy. He often has little idea of the trouble he causes and the figure he makes and when he does notice he is so eager to fix things that he just makes them far worse. The comedy is in the way he moves, his facial expressions, his poor timing or, in some case, exceptionally good timing. Mostly his seemingly harmless quirks triggers events that always gets far worse than he deserve. Like when he gently moves a card player to reach a ping-pong ball so the player plays his card on the wrong table causing both tables to erupt in fury at the unfortunate card player.

To a modern viewer the pace is a little too slow. Chaplin at his greatest was better at that timing, not to mention Keaton, but it is compensated by the subtleness of many of the jokes. Of course there are a lot of very obvious gags: people falling, things breaking, his silly car and so on, but “Les Vacances de M. Hulot” is best when it is subtle. The replacement tire with leaves stuck to it that is mistaken for a funeral decoration, only to let out air as the mourners pass as if they were farting, or the English (I presume) middle, but wannabe upper class, couple led on by the enthusiastic, but oblivious wife, always keeping her husband in tow. At the end when everybody seem ready to denounce Hulot, he alone thanks Hulot for saving his otherwise miserable vacation. The small gestures are everywhere. The head waiter’s quiet exasperation, the wonder of the older woman who takes a liking to Hulot, the children, who for once are not a menace to the movie, but seem to be utterly in the way of the propriety of guests and hosts at the hotel.

This is the movie that made Tati and he went on to make several very successful movies, though, as I understand it, rarely featuring himself as Hulot. “Mon Oncle” is the only one I could find (Maybe “Trafic”?). That is actually a shame. I could easily see his Hulot character become a franchise: M. Hulot in the army, M. Hulot gets a job, M. Hulot wins in the lottery. As Chaplin did or Chevy Chase with the National Lampoon. The most obvious descendent of Hulot however is Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean franchise. I feel almost certain I have watched an episode or maybe a combination of episodes copying “Les Vacances de M. Hulot”. I like Mr. Bean (or even better Blackadder, but that is another story), but he harks back to Tati, which in turn tried to emulate the great Charles Chaplin. This format has a long history.

“Les Vacences de M. Hulot” gets a solid recommendation from me. It was fun to watch and never boring. It is great to see physical comedy done well and as a little bonus we get a musical riff that set the tone for summer vacation scenes in movies for next two decades.

Saturday 16 May 2015

Tales of Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari) (1953)

Ugetsu Monogatari
This week I am in Korea teaching so I found it entirely fitting to take on a Japanese movie while I am here. Well, Korea is not Japan, which the locals will tell me in an instant, but from a western perspective it sets the mood well enough and there are no Korean movies from 53 on the list, so this is the closest thing.

“Ugetsu Monogatari” is a movie by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the three big directors from Japanese movies golden age period. I have previously reviewed his “Zangiku Monogatari” from 39 and in that connection watched an entire box set of his early films. By 1953 he clearly had developed his style, particularly by making the pace and plot a lot more tight. Of course it helps that the scenes are a lot more transparent to the western eye in “Ugetsu…”, but it helps a lot that he tightened up on his previous tendency to weave.

For “Ugetsu…” Mizoguchi goes further back in time than in his previous films, back to the civil war period in the 16th century. A period that seems to be something of a Japanese favorite, certainly Kurusawa made plenty of movies set in this era. It is a time of unrest and upheaval, a heroic period of the samurai, but heroics is not Mizoguchi’s objective. On the contrary, for Mizoguchi this is a tragic period of destruction, hunger and death and it is on that note that his story plays out.

We meet and follow two small families in a little village ravaged by war. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a potter who is very intent on exploiting the unrest to make a fortune on his pottery. He has a wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is worried by this obsession and the sweetest little boy Genichi (Ikio Sawamura). His friend Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) is obsessing about becoming a samurai, which is almost comical since he is a peasant of both mind and manner. His wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) keeps pointing that out, but he is entirely deaf to her.

The two men are so busy pursuing their dreams, one of wealth and life in comfort and the other of status and glory that they entirely set aside their families. There are plenty of worries for the families in the village as it is. Frequent incursions by soldiers sends the villagers fleeing to the hills to avoid rape and being pressed into service. Property is destroyed as the soldiers look for food and valuables so protecting your family seems like the natural first priority. Genjuro however insist on bringing his wares to town and leave his wife and son behind. Tobei comes along on the pretext of helping Genjuro, but with the ulterior motive to pursue his dream of becoming a samurai. Ohama comes along too to keep an eye on her fool of a husband.

Then everything goes wrong. Tobei runs off to become first a soldier and when he luckily kills a famous general he is elevated to samurai. Ohama in her search for her husband gets raped by soldiers and thus enter a sorry career of prostitution. But the most remarkable mishap happens to Genjuro. His pottery is a big success and even attracts the attention of the noble Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō). Soon he is invited to her palace where she and her nurse fawns on him. First in admiration of his pottery, but it is soon clear that it is him they want. Genjuro is seduced by this life in wealth and comfort and agrees to marry her. Meanwhile Miyagi at home is attacked by soldiers. What happens is at first unclear, but she is certainly suffering and the child is crying.

So, while the men are fulfilling their dreams their women and children are suffering.

Soon everything come crashing down. Tobei finds his wife in a brothel and Genjuro discovers that he has married a long dead ghost and in the process forgotten his family. Both wow to forget their dreams, but the damage is done and you cannot get back what you lost. This is most poignant for Genjuro in one of the most heartbreaking homecoming scenes ever.

I will not spoil the ending but I freely admit that I was crying at the end. For Genjuro, and especially for his little son. Genichi is the sweetest little boy and of similar age to my own son. When he cries “Daddy” (in Japanese) I can hear my own little boy and I get angry with Genjuro for forgetting him. How could he? In the final scenes Genichi is all quiet and that is even worse than crying. It is just heartbreaking.

The morale lesson seems pretty clear. It is about getting your priorities right, about holding up your personal ambitions against your responsibilities. Something that is all too easy to forget. The two men are fools to pursue their ambitions so carelessly, but they also get it back in their face.

But this is also about the victims of ambition. The women here pays the price of their men’s ambition. Directly and indirectly. In post-war Japan that would like have struck a note, both  in the aftermath of the war, but also in the total dedication to work and service pervading Japanese society.

My copy of the film was not in the best technical condition, but it does not detract from the overall impression. While it can, as usual, be difficult to always understand and appreciate the cultural elements of East Asian films I thing this one was more accessible than Mizoguchi’s earlier films and that helps a lot. I never felt entirely lost and the motives and concerns were universal enough that I have no problem understanding them. Sometimes in Japanese films I have an issue with the servility of especially women, who seem to sacrifice themselves to their men willingly, but in “Ugetsu Monogatari” there is very little servility in their sacrifices. In fact these women are a lot stronger than I am used to in Japanese film and that honestly makes them more palatable.

I liked this film and more so towards the end. Of the Mizoguchi films I have seen this is clearly the best one.

Monday 11 May 2015

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat
With ”The Big Heat” we are back in noir-land with murder, sinister bandits, trench coats and beautiful women of dubious reputation. That also means that I am pre-disposed to like this movie. Thankfully I was not let down, although Fritz Lang has his own take on it and that deviates some from the prescribed model.

Fritz Lang had his heyday in the twenties and early thirties when he worked out of Germany. Since he moved to Hollywood he had some difficulty finding the high notes again. The best is sort of okay, but not memorable. In that context “The Big Heat” was a positive surprise. Lang delivers a tight story that reminds of his glory days but also points forward as it seeks to develop the noir genre in a modern direction.

“The Big Heat” may seem very familiar today. It is the story of a single policeman, who finds himself fighting alone against not just the criminals, but against the system itself as the corruption has infected the police all the way to the top. Dave Bannion’s (Glenn Ford) struggle becomes personal when his wife is killed to the extent that it is more a personal vendetta than professional police work. Does this ring any bells?

Today we are talking one of the most beaten to death plots, but in 1953 I dare say this was a novelty and a gutsy one at that. My guess is that suggesting that the police was deeply corrupt at the highest level was not exactly patriotic talk. Instead it reflects a pessimism, which was much more at home in the seventies, but that actually fits Lang very well. He was always best we he was ahead of his time at when he was most suspicious of authorities (M, Metropolis).

On the other hand his one man on his own plot is also a classic American story as well as the idea that the quality of men is more important than the system, so maybe than convinced censors and reviewers that it was okay after all.

I was quite surprised with the darkness and brutality of the movie. People die like flies and most of them seem to be women. Most shockingly when Bannion’s own wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando) is blown up. As opposed to practically everybody else Bannion lives a content, but modest and normal family life. He has a lovely daughter, who I guess is around 6 years old and his wife is ordinary in the best meaning of the word. It is very clear that they are a happy family and it is just as clear that honesty is not making them rich. That Katie should die almost has the same effect as when Brad Pitt’s characters wife in “Seven” gets killed. It is a violation against her and Dave Bannion and very much against their little daughter and just the thought is making me feel sick. Hitchcock famously did it in “Sabotage”, but later admitted it was probably a mistake. In “The Big Heat” there is no accident about it. Well, the gangsters were aiming at Dave, but Lang uses it to transform Dave Bannion and set us up against, not just the gangsters, but the system that protects them. A low shot maybe, but damn effective.

The story has a fascinating puzzle element like any good police plot. Why did Tom Duncan kill himself and why is there something very off about his widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan)? Adding the girl (prostitute?) Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) and her allegations of foul play makes it even more suspicious, especially when she suddenly dies, and all the while Bannion is getting told by his boss, Lt. Wilks (Willis Bouchey) to lay off the case. Many threads, many characters and a very murky picture. Exactly how we like a good noir.

After the bomb it is a different movie. The mystery is evaporating as we see the criminals in action and the opening mystery is now only of minor importance. There is no hiding the rottenness. Tough guy Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), gangster boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and henchman Larry Gordon (Adam Williams) is talking openly about their dirty business and we see Commissioner Higgins (Adam Williams), Bannion’s top boss play poker in Vince’s lair. This is now a personal battle between Bannion and the bad guys. That struggle reaches a climax when Lagana and Vince reach for Bannion’s weakest point, his daughter. This really upset me. They had just done away with his wife. Would Lang also let the little girl, innocence itself, be killed? Nothing distresses me more than violence against children and this thread felt as bad for me as it did Bannion. Talk about having a motive for bringing down the bad guys!

In a noir there is usually a femme fatale and while “The Big Heat” suffers no lack of dubious women their roles are almost reversed. Chapman goes to the police and gets killed for it and Vince’s girl Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) first flirt with Bannion and then turn on Vince when he punishes such flirtation with a hot coffee shower. It is the pretty “femme fatales” that redeem themselves by doing the right thing while the respectable types like the police commissioner, the matronly widow Duncan or the wannabe respectable gangster boss Lagana commit the villainy.

Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin are top-billed on my DVD together with Glenn Ford and I think that mostly is due to their later fame, at least in Marvin’s case. Although it was fun watching him as a heavy I did not find him that memorable and Grahame I think was not entirely convincing. That maybe because I could not figure out her sudden interest in Bannion. Boredom seems the only explanation and that is just not good enough. However a big nod to the make-up department for her disfigured face. That was awesome.

The big tear-jerker is at the very end when Bannion finally is able to talk about his wife to the dying Debby. He describes not her beauty or wit or using any form of poetry, but says that she was a sampler. She had to taste his food and his wine and have a puff on his cigarette and that is just about the most endearing and romantic thing I ever heard. Seriously.

“The Big Heat” gets a good recommendation from me. It is solid work from Lang. Brutal and effective and way ahead of its time.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentlemen Foretrækker Blondiner
There are two very good reasons to watch and like ”Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. They are called Jane Russell and Marylyn Monroe.

I have arrived at one of the true classics of the mid-fifties and while I actually have not seen it before it is one of those movie most people (myself included) know of. The song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” has been referenced so often that is has become synonymous with Marilyn Monroe and is used by anybody (like Madonna) who wants to reference her. My guess is that fewer people have actually watched the movie and that is a shame because “Gentlemen Prefers Blondes” is a glorious celebration of the musical comedy genre. There is a lot to love in this movie, also beyond the two above mentioned ladies.

Dorothy (Jane Russell) and Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) are fast friends, what in today’s pop culture would be called BFFs, despite in many ways being each other’s opposites. Dorothy presents a strong woman, not unlike the type we saw in “The Paleface”. She speaks her mind and go for what she wants, which is sex. Dorothy is practical and honest and prefers love (well, sex actually) to wealth. She is the woman who is “on top” if you take my meaning.

For Lorelei the objective is also men, but not sex. Sex is just the tool she employs to obtain her real target: wealth. She has the looks of a bombshell, a bed chamber voice that promises anything but sleeping and the appearance of a stupid silly girl. But underneath that silly façade she is cunning and calculated and every bit as practical as Dorothy.

The two of them are show girls headed for France where Lorelei is supposed to get married to her millionaire friend and they are not idle. Dorothy is courting half the ship including the American Olympic team and Lorelei has found a rich old (married!) man, with the fitting nickname Piggy (Charles Coburn) who happen to own a diamond mine in Africa. And diamonds is such an aphrodisiac…

This is a happy and funny musical so we know that we are just supposed to enjoy ourselves and not worry too much about drama and realism and that works fine for me. There is so much to look at, so many great lines and genuinely funny gags that I for one had a great time watching this. The idea of these two man-hunters on the prowl is great and what could have been pathetic is rendered charming and fun by the actresses. There is something seedy about their attitude and outlook, but it is part of the charm of the movie. This is the 1950’ies. The ambition of women in this time is still linked to men: Want to make a fortune? Marry wealth. Your assets? Your looks and wit to entice men. It is sad, I know, but given this premise here are two girls out to get what they want and they are not afraid to go for it.

Everything in this musical centers on Russell and Monroe and good for that. They are in a word great. At first Monroe seems to outshine Russell, which is remarkable all on its own. She only has to talk in that bed room whisper and you know where Monroe’s reputation comes from. I cannot remember anybody pre-53 as sexually loaded as Monroe in that style. No wonder the marks in the movie, including her pet millionaires, are defenseless against her.

Russell however gets her comeback on the boat. As she goes around among the Olympic team, singing “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” she looks like nothing so much as a fox among chickens. I was thinking of a girl in a candy store, but Dorothy is a predator and the way she look at those sporty, half naked men is anything but childish. Her two tennis rackets might just as well have been two revolvers.

Speaking of songs, this movie is littered with great ones. The climax of course is “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”, the song that made Monroe a star, but every one of them are good. In that sense I feel as spoiled as I did in “Singing in the Rain”.

But what really won me over is the joy and genuine fun that permeates every scene. I smiled all the way through except when I laughed. Lorelei running circles around Piggy, Dorothy trying to knock some sense into Lorelei, their mad scheming to get sex and diamonds respectively and, the glorious moment when the fabulously rich Henry Spofford III turns out to be a child. That reveal at the dinner table was priceless.

If there was anything negative to say about the movie it is that the supporting cast is about as weak as the leads are great. Nobody but Coburn were really worth a mention and George Winslow as the child billionaire is outright miscast (or fed idiotic lines or both). However it detracts very little from the overall impression. This is all about Russell and Monroe, they are great and that is all that matters.

Sex in the fifties? Look no further.


Sunday 3 May 2015

Pickup on South Street (1953)

You know those spoof movies that take a genre or two and run all the tropes and clichés, but exaggerated for hilarity? If you do you would know that the crime/noir/spy theme has been a frequent victim and frankly I was afraid that I had dumped into such a movie, or worse, a movie that unintentionally was a spoof upon itself.

This is how it starts, “Pickup on South Street”. Very hardboiled, tough criminals, tougher detectives, dangerous dames and a jargon so full of hardboiled slang that is entirely incomprehensible. Oh no, I thought, this could be a tough ride.

Slowly however the uneasy feeling settled and I started to enjoy this film. The B-movie factor is still extremely high, but corny turns to cool and caricatures turn to people. This is fun, I thought, I like this.

Then, gradually, I realize the movie is transforming again. The spy theme slides into the background and as we get super close-up views of the characters the real themes come clear. This is about people, their motives and priorities. The hard necessity of life and the decisions they must make. Maybe it sounds even cornier than the hard boiled spy theme, but actually these more human themes are treated with a stark tenderness that feels a lot more real than the action hulabalu we are served as a front.

It is on this background I can say that I liked this movie a lot more than I expected and had a grand time watching it.

There are so many things happening in the plot that a synopsis would be a multi-page affair so I will be very brief. Candy (Jean Peters) is a courier for her former boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). She thinks she is conveying harmless trade messages, but it is actually classified information to the commies. In the subway her purse gets picked by the professional pickpocket Skip (Richard Widmark) who thereby comes into possession of the microfilm with the sensitive information. And all hell breaks loose.

Government agents (FBI?) were following Candy and needed to see who got the film so they could bust the spy. The theft throws their operation into disarray and they must get it back. Joey must deliver that film to the commie spy and is desperate to get the film back for which purpose he presses Candy into action. Both the police and Candy use a professional police informer in the form of old Moe (Thelma Ritter) to find Skip and Skip soon finds out that the wares he got are hot and worth a lot of money.

An affair evolves between Skip and Candy and when she finds out she has been working for commies she is looking for a way out for her and for Skip.

There are many more elements to the story, but the three central figures here are Skip, Candy and Moe.

Moe is tough as nails. She speaks like a dockworker and haggles like a salesman of pre-owned cars as she peddles information (and ties as a front). Is she a moral wreck for associating with the criminals and then sell information about them to the highest bidder? No, the movie tells us, she just have to make a living like everybody else and as she respect a moral code that requires that nobody get badly hurt by her information she is accepted and even liked by everybody. Behind the tough exterior she is a frail old woman whose last mission in life is to save enough money for a proper funeral so she can avoid Potters Field. We get closer and closer to her and so does the camera and with each step she becomes more naked until we stare straight into her soul.

Joey as a communist spy is outside the code of the New York underworld. He does not understand it and to the standard criminals treason is as bad as it is to the rest of us. To Joey Moe is a danger, not a fellow member of the underworld and when he shoots her he also declares war on thieves like Skip. The scene where Skip intercepts the coffin with Moe in it and redirects it to give her a proper funeral is one of the most poignant in the movie.

Candy is at first a tool for Joey to get the package back and she uses her female charms to get close to him. Those first meetings between them are so full of deceit and hardboiled lingo that is difficult to say who is taking advantage of who. Skip clearly is convinced that her objective is the package, but her feelings for him are slowly becoming real and when she realize that Joey has been using her as a commie spy she becomes seriously worried for Skip. How much is real and how much is fake with her? She changes over the film from hardboiled cool to almost desperate. She has to juggle Joey, the police and Skip. Who can she tell what and where her allegiance lies? It is a tightrope walk and the rope is getting shakier by the minute.

Skip is maybe the most complex of the characters and the one that develops the most. He starts out as a very one-dimensional bad guy. He is street smart, bad ass and with very low morals a.k.a your classical villain. But Candy’s apparent affection makes him waver. It is noteworthy that it is not the flag-waving patriotism the police come at him with that turns him over. For Skip the 25 grand is more immediate and important. It is what Joey did to Moe and Candy. That makes it personal and that motivates him. You can see that in the final showdown. He hardly cares about the guy who picks up the package, the guy the police wants, no, the delivery done just means that Joey is fair game, that Skip can beat the crap out of him.

It is telling for the movie that the micro film and the commie spy that is so important at the opening of the film has entirely gone from focus at the end. At that point it is all about Candy and Skip. That is actually a massive transformation, but more impressive when you consider the change from B-movie superficial spy and crime style to a much more elegant noir style by the end. There were scenes there that reminded me of “The Third Man” with the chase in the sewers.

This was fun. Far more enjoyable than expected.