Thursday 31 March 2016

12 Angry Men (1957)

Tolv vrede mænd
Today’s movie ”12 Angry Men” is the complete opposite of my previous entry ”The Ten Commandments”. From lavish sets we are down to a single room and the adjoining bathroom, from vibrant color to old fashioned black and white and from primitive direction of actors to the most delicious and refined acting I can remember. “The Ten Commandments” was epic of scale, “12 Angry men is super condensed and absolutely impossible to let go of. You could not get two more different movies.

I know which one I prefer.

“12 Angry Men” is a Dogme movie four decades before that sort of this became really hip. It takes a single idea and treat it with care and respect and use actors for the single thing they are really good at, which is of course acting, and the result is one of the most pleasant surprises so far in 2016. I just swallowed this movie and I am still trying to digest it. It has a simple premise, but so many neat details that it is impossible to keep a summary brief.

Anyway, here is the score: An 18 year old boy is charged with killing his father. A jury of twelve men adjourns to a meeting room to decide whether or not the boy is guilty. On the face of it the case is clear, all arrows point towards the boy. In the initial vote eleven of the twelve jurors declare the boy guilty without blinking and only Juror, number 8 (Henry Fonda), disagrees. Not that he is convinced he is not guilty, he is just not sure the boy is guilty and you cannot condemn someone to the chair if you are not certain of his guilt.  

This starts a discussion about the case. One after another the details of the case are submitted to their scrutiny and the hard evidence starts to crumble. This causes a shift in the jury and the “Not Guilty” fraction grows, one member at a time.

The subject matter is interesting all on its own, how each piece of evidence is torn apart and I am actually not a fan of courtroom dramas. It is contribution of each of the characters that makes it work. None of them are given names, just a number, but they are very well defined characters and it is by their traits we know them. The raging garage owner who want to kick some ass, the timid bank clerk, the structured and well-mannered clock maker, the flippant advertiser, the uncaring sports fan who is in the jury for the money, the cool stock broker and so on. Each of the twelve men has an angle, each one approaches the case in their own personal way, through rage, logic, conviction, prejudice or whatever their character represents.

One could argue that the characters are drawn too hard, becoming stylized, but to me they feel quite real. It is the setting that makes them stand sharp. Without names we only recognize them by their traits. The small room, the oppressing heat, the life or death decision makes the characters stand sharp. And that is so very brilliantly done. Yes, Henry Fonda’s juror number 8 is the catalyst, but it is an ensemble effort and it is because of the resistance to the arguments we learn as much as we do about each of them. Incidentally, the smarter and sensible they are the sooner they are swayed, but in each case it takes a special argument.

This is a timeless movie. It is not burdened by outdated technical qualities or old fashioned sensibilities. If you add color this could be an excellent movie from last week. It holds up that well and that is because this is all about human traits. We have not changed significantly since 57 when you take away the surface.

I wish there were a lot more like this movie. Dialogue and character driven movies with a clever focus. I loved every minute of it.

Saturday 26 March 2016

The Ten Commandments (1956)

De ti bud
Over the Easter I have been watching ”The Ten Commandments”, Cecil B. DeMille epic movie about the exodus of Egypt. It is entirely fitting that I should watch this in Easter since this is the backstory of the Jewish equivalent Pessach (or Passover), the event Jesus was attending during the events of Easter. Due to a quirk of the Jewish calendar one out of four years the events are a month offset and 2016 is such a year. So, in an ordinary year this would have been an entirely fitting movie for the holiday.

As readers of this blog will probably know my wife is Jewish and we are currently living in Israel. That means that I have some firsthand experience on the importance this story has on Jewish tradition. During the Seder (the premier dinner of Pessach) the Haggadah is read aloud and that is exactly the story covered by “The Ten Commandments”. It is a lengthy affair and the tone is not so different from the movie.

Add to this the role of the Exodus in Christian tradition (and probably also Islamic) and we are talking a big culture defining story.

The producers of “The Ten Commandments” (which includes Cecil B. DeMille himself) seemed well aware of this and as a result poured enormous resources into it. With a budget of a staggering 13 million dollars it features sets not seen since Griffith “Intolerance” and a cast to rival any contender, even by today’s standards. Technically this is a masterpiece and the format is “Gone With the Wind” grand. Somewhere between the lavishness of the production and the subject matter it managed to become one of the greatest box office hits in movie history, only exceeded by a handful of movies, depending on how you calculate it.

Watching it, especially with unreligious eyes, there is a strange dichotomy in the production. There is no denying the grandness of the spectacle, but the direction and to some extent the story is strangely primitive. Most scenes use a very static camera, the scenes are tableau-like stages and in most scenes only the one who talks is moving. Nobody talks at the same time and everybody proclaims rather than just talk. In this sense “The Ten Commandments” looks more like theater than a movie and it gives the movie a very artificial feel. I found myself often laughing from scenes that were definitely not meant to be funny, but was rendered so by this odd style. The schism between advanced sets and primitive direction is most likely a result of DeMille himself. He was one of the great pioneers of the moving picture and much of what he did was back in the silent era. I take it as a hint of his inability to adapt to the development of movies that this is the only one of his movies that made it to the list. Based on directional skill alone it does not deserve its place.

The other problem, that of the story, may relate more to the subject matter and how this is more of a legend than a historic account. As everything religious this is a story that seeks to teach its audience lessons of life and morality. The characters are iconic and they do not need to have normal human traits. Add to this the obvious political or missionary intents of DeMille and the symbolism becomes far more important than naturalism. From my point of view however I find it hugely annoying when people act illogically or outright stupid in order to make a religious or political point. Obviously a lot of the script is written up front, but with the liberty given a movie rendition I am surprised at some of the choices made. This is most pronounced with the Moses character himself, played by Charlton Heston. He is some sort of a genius, accomplishing monumental tasks, yet he seems to make very odd decisions at critical points. The most grotesque being his decision to work the mud pits as a slave when he realizes he is born of a Hebrew mother. If he is suddenly so upset about the slavery issue, why not take the throne practically given to him and just declare their release? What exactly does he think he can achieve from the mud pits? If the objective is to give him integrity it is clearly at the expense of brains.

Yul Brynner’s Rameses is much neater cut, but he is also a victim of odd decisions. I can understand that he wants to avoid creating a martyr, but Moses, the leader of the rebellion, can come and go at his court at will and only when it is too late does Rameses try to restrain him. Any normal tyrant would have him in irons the moment he made a public presence.

The movie is full of smaller and larger examples of these oddities and they do have the effect of distancing me from the characters. That I on a personal level does not buy into the religious elements does not really help me a lot either and there is a lot to stomach. On the other hand if you want to understand particularly Jewish culture this is an excellent guidebook, especially on the diaspora and the sense of nation.

With a massive cast like this however it cannot go entirely wrong. Yul Brynner is pretty awesome and so is Edward G. Robinson as the voice of failure and betrayal among the Israelites. These two are in fact so good that there were times I was rooting for the bad guys rather than the good. Anne Baxter as Nefretiri is also a character far more developed and with more human traits with her equivalents on the Hebrew side, Sephora (Yvonnne De Carlo) and Lilia (Debra Paget). She is also the voice of reason and common sense that challenges Moses and has the unfortunate effect of making Moses look like something in between an idiot and a mad zealot.

In fairness I should mention that many of the problems pointed out are if not resolved then at least taking backseat in the second half of the movie where the spectacle takes over and dazzles even a hardened viewer like myself. The night of the destroyer and the crossing of the Red Sea are both so spectacularly done that they are in fact worth the entire movie.

“The Ten Commandments” is a movie that is both toe-cringing and exciting, educational and religious indoctrination. It is not a movie to be rated by normal standards and at the end of the day probably a movie more to be respected than liked. As an end to 1956 I can definitely say that the year goes out with a bang.       

Sunday 20 March 2016

High Society (1956)

High Society
As a warm up to the movies on the List I read a bit ahead and get a rough idea what the movie is about. The Book is fairly careful about spoilers so it is more a teaser really and boy did I get teased on this one! Listen to this round of casual name dropping: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Grace Kelly and music by Cole Porter. This tickles a lot of delightful spots in my brain I can tell you. Damn it, I loved this movie before even starting it.

It is sort of a musical, but a musical where the music is fitted in far more gently than the average nineteen fifties musical. That means among a lot of other nice advantages (like very little and practically no choreographed dancing) that there is a good balance between story and music. There is some real acting going on here and it does not feel entirely like a vehicle for the music… with a little “but”, which I shall return to shortly.

It is a comedy, with good punchlines and great characters and the potential for a lot of sweet, if a bit fluffy, entertainment, but but but we have seen it all before. Not unusual for a remake, but this is a remake of “The Philadelphia Story” from 1940, an absolutely wonderful movie with three of American cinema’s very best actors, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Steward at their very best (Stewart and Hepburn won best actor and actress + four more Oscar’s for the movie!). To dare do a remake of such a master piece take cojones and a lot of money. “High Society” makes it a musical and use the very best 1956 can offer and makes this its special angle.

It works, almost. Well, the music side of it works plenty, it was pure bliss. I could have the soundtrack going all day, it is the wet dream of musicals. The problem is the rest. Because the story is not just a stupid vehicle but a very central element so much relies on it, and it does work, it is a funny and charming story, but I cannot help every single step of the way to compare it to the original “Philadelphia story”. In the 1940 version all the dialogue had more sting, Grant was immensely slyer than Bing Crosby and nobody hits that everyman vibe of Jimmy Steward, not even the great Sinatra. They all do a valiant job, but it is mission impossible. I feel most sorry for Grace Kelly who gives the performance of her life, owning the screen and reduce her male counterparts to supporting actors and yet she never hits that acerbic punch that Hepburn delivered. She tries, but it is useless. Nobody does this like the Kat.

In “High Society” the tone is generally milder and some of the plot is a bit lost. The acting up for the reporters feels unmotivated and does not lead anywhere. The sister, Dinah, is central to this plot but entirely disappears after it fizzles. I could live with that because there is so much else going on here, but I know how it should be, I know a better version and that makes “High Society” look weak with all the glitz and money spent on it a desperate attempt to compensate.

What I am trying to say here is that if there had never been a “Philadelphia Story” or at least if I have never seen it, this would be a delightful musical with a funny, if slightly confusing, backstory. It would work and I would proclaim it the second best musical of the fifties, grudgingly leaving top spot to “Singing in the Rain”. In short, this is exactly how I like my musical: witty, charming, natural (or as natural as possible) and with stellar music performed by the best there is.

Do I feel cheated? Nope, not really. I mostly feel annoyed with myself that I keep comparing it. You really have to knock it out of your head, or maybe just enjoy the music. For me Louis could play that trumpet all day long and I would be a happy man. Oh yeah!!!

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Bigger than Life (1956)

Giften i blodet
I seem to have problems with a wide range of movies. Substance abuse movies, child abuse movies, cheap romances and so one. Let me just add another one: Mental illness movies.

This is not new though. Mental illness movies have always freaked me out. It is a lot easier for me to deal with broken limbs, cancer or ulcering wounds than people going bananas in the head. Even when played for comedy I do not think it is that funny. So to get a movie that is about a man going screwy in the head means trouble for me.

“Bigger Than Life” is another Nicholas Ray movie featuring (and produced by) no other than the brilliant James Mason. He is a school teacher living a normal 1950’ies style middle class life with a wife at home and child of, I suppose, nine or ten years, maybe less. Ed Avery is well liked by staff and students alike and the only apparent crack in his life is his secret second job as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet.

Soon we learn that there is another much larger crack in Ed’s life. He is having seizures and pretty bad ones. At first he tries to hide it, but when he gets an epic scale seizure in front of his wife it is off to the hospital. Specialists are brought in and the verdict is that Ed is suffering from a rare and fatal disease and he has only a short time to live unless he starts on a new experimental medicine, the hormone treatment Cortisone.

The medicine works like magic. Soon Ed is up and about and ready to take up his old life. He is in fact almost too cured. Full of energy, plans, big ideas and big spending, Ed is very happy. Lou, his wife (Barbara Rush) and Richie, his son (Christopher Olsen) chose to enjoy the ride and just be happy dad is home. But Ed is getting addicted to the pills and starts taking more than he is supposed to. As a result he is developing a psychosis. At first it looks like a polar psychosis as he is mainly manic, but later it looks more bipolar as he gets further and further away from reality.

Ed is convinced of his own superiority, to his students, the parents at the PTA, his wife and his son. He has wild plans all round and when people do not follow him he is ready to discard them, divorce his wife or kill his son. He is surrounded by enemies who are plotting against him and his wife’s and friend, Wally’s (Walter Matthau), attempts at helping him is a conspiracy and proof they are having an affair.

There is really only way it can go and a Hollywood ending cannot hide the tragedy for all involved.

I had a colleague who has a manic disorder and his attacks were exactly like watching Ed Avery. At first it may seem funny because it is really wild and makes for great stories, but it is not fun at all and the price tag is incredibly high. It is symptomatic that the manic state enhances elements that are already there, transforming quirks into craziness. Ed does feel superior and he feels stuck in his suburban rut. When he gets the drug superiority become fascist and his disgust with his life becomes wild attempts to escape it.

Who is to blame then? Is it Ed himself for abusing the medicine? Or the doctors who prescribe the medicine and then close the door? Or just tough luck? Nick Ray seems to want us to blame the doctors, they do look like greedy businessmen rather than caring doctors and I can certainly understand the sentiment that their interest is to suck Ed’s money rather than his well-being. I am not so familiar with that sort of health system and that may be why it looks particularly harsh.

I think the agenda of the movie is more in the direction of making us aware of the tragedy of mental disorder and the trap in which the afflicted is caught. “Bigger Than Life” is in that sense a parallel to “Lost Weekend”. The realization of this tragedy is the real impact of the movie and it is devastating. The DVD comes with a conversion between Jim Jarmusch and Jonathan Rosenbaum who discuss the many layers and messages of the movie and I suppose they are right, it is a movie that packs a lot of content. Yet, I am not inclined to watch it again right away, it is simply too taxing.

On a brighter note it is great to see Walter Matthau early in his career. I know him primarily as a comedian so it is interesting to watch him do a serious role. For the rest they all do a nice job, even Christopher Olsen as Richie. He balances the love, hate and fear of his father nicely and as in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” he manages to mostly avoid being annoying.

No doubt “Bigger Than Life” is an interesting and well-made movie and a worthy entry, but it was a hard movie for me to get through and you really need something to pull you up afterwards. Just not Cortisone.

Thursday 10 March 2016

The Wrong Man (1956)

Den forkerte mand
Alfred Hitchcock has often been described as a one-trick pony in as far as he always made the same kind of movie. I would argue that that is a bit unfair, especially considering the range he presented in his early years, but it is true that there were certain themes that he found so interesting that he kept returning to them. When he did, however, he would usually find a new angle that would make a familiar theme fresh and so widen themes that by any right should have been exhausted after a few movies.

On of Hitchcock’s fascinations was the idea of a man caught in the wrong place and as a result get involved in dramatic event not of his doing. The movie “The Wrong Man” is so exactly this theme and it seems condemned to end up as a Hitchcock cliché flick, but then Hitchcock goes and does something that makes this movie entirely unique and different from any other Hitchcock movie I have seen. He applies a realism style to an extent to make it almost documentarian.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for realism. In a fictional world it is easy to distance yourself from a story, but when things look real and authentic everything gets a lot closer and a lot more poignant. You can relate to people and they become alive. This is why “Roma, Citta Aperta” is a tough movie, why we love “Marty” and why Marlon Brando has such an impact in Kazan’s movies. But Hitchcock did not do method acting. For him it was entirely new to try his hands on realism. Maybe it was just an experiment, maybe just a new angle, but personally I think he struck gold and I regret he did not explore this vein more. “The Wrong Man” has a nerve few of his movies had, not just tension, but a pressing urgency that got deep under my skin. For this reason alone I would call “The Wrong Man” a high point in Hitchcock’s career, though I think it is normally rated as one of his lesser movies.

“The Wrong Man” is the real story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero (Henry Fonda), called “Manny”, a musician at a New York venue called “The Stork Club” who was wrongly accused of armed hold-ups actually committed by a man that looked similar enough to be his double.

“Manny” is in every way a decent fellow. He has a wife and two small children, earns just enough to get along and struggles with the same problems that most people have, but deals with them with integrity and humility. He does not gamble and save where he can, raising money the hard way. When Rose (Vera Miles), his wife, needs 300$ for dental treatment (a staggering sum in the early fifties!) Manny tries to raise money from Rose’s life insurance. At the insurance agency office the clerks are convinced (or rather convinces each other as these thing usually happen) that Manny is in fact the guy that twice help up and robbed the office.

Soon Manny experience the ride of his life as he is brought in by the police, interrogated and identified as the criminal. His reaction is dazed disbelief and it is obvious he is wondering wtf is going on. This may be the best, or worst, part of the movie as Fonda, the music and the photography conspire to make this a true nightmare. There is panic just beneath the surface and it is a wonder that Manny does not succumb to it.

His wife does though as Rose is overwhelmed by the feeling that the world is out to get them and she is somehow to blame. It gets so bad she has to be institutionalized and although the epilogue tells us that eventually she recovered it is a fine example of the human costs these accusations can have.

Manny is eventually cleared, but not through fine detective work or sophisticated legal acrobatics, but through sheer luck as the real culprit is apprehended by chance. Had he not Manny would have been convicted, his and his wife’s life and likely those of his boys ruined. All because some clerks worked themselves up into thinking he was the guy that robbed them.

Beside the nightmare of a fickle legal system there is a religious element as Manny eventually has nowhere else to look than to blind luck. He is lucky there in the end and may be convinced of divine intervention because it sure was not by design.

This is such a classic Hitchcock theme, but as I already stated the almost documentarian realism makes this an incredibly strong experience. Locations are authentic, the story is apparently very close to the real one and both Fonda and Miles were actors would cold play ordinary people. Add to that Hitchcock’s uncanny talent for staging and one of the best soundtracks Hitch ever used and you have a winner in my book.

Hitchcock probably was never darker than he was here and I deplore that. There was a hidden talent for dark realism that was sadly underused.    

Thursday 3 March 2016

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

De stjålne kroppe
The fifties was a great decade for science fiction and horror. It was not big business like it is today, but a low budget bonanza where everything was possible as long as it was cheap and could make a buck. And the variety is truly great. As my good friend Bea will know (do visit her site at ) there are lots of amazing stuff from this period. However because of the low budget nature of this flood of film only few on them found their way to the 1001 list. Rightly so you might say considering the quality of the majority of them, but I miss them nonetheless. They are hilarious, inventive, outrageous or just inadvertently funny and I love them.

Those that do make the list are probably the crème de la crème, the stand-out examples and that is certainly the case with today’s entry, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Yes, it has a lot of the hallmarks of B, but how many of you can say that you never heard of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”? It is legend. I myself know it primarily from the ’78 version, which was truly chilling, but on this viewing of the original ’56 I realize that I have seen plenty of clips from this one as well over time.

This, the ‘56 version, is told as a film noir in black and white with plenty of shadows and a flashback narrator who early on let us know that thing have fallen pretty much apart. That is a great way to go about it, combining noir, horror and sci-fi. The narrator is Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), practitioner in the small town of Santa Mira. He is pretty upset, possibly raving mad as he is held in custody in a hospital, but eventually he calms down and tells the chilling story of how Santa Mira was taken over by aliens from outer space.

It is one of those stories where everything is seemingly perfectly normal, but for small hints now and then that they are not altogether normal. Bennell is called back to town because a larger number of townspeople need his help urgently, only now that he is back they are perfectly fine. Those who do come in complain that they do not recognize their loved ones, but they just seem overwrought, except there are too many of those cases. What is going on?

Dr. Bennell meets up with old love interest Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), who is worried for her cousin Wilma, and his friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) who has made a scary discovery in his basement: A body with blurred features, but not unlike Jack’s. At this point Miles, Becky and Jack are seriously worried, but they have not seen half of it yet. The town is being taken over by seedpods from outer space who grows copies of people and replace the originals with them. The pod-people are unrecognizable from the originals except that they are unable to show or feel emotion. And they are totally devoted to their cause of taking over the world.

As Miles slowly learns the truth, his becomes a constant run from the pod-people. Who is friend and who is foe? Miles is quickly running out of the former while there is no lack of the latter until eventually he is all alone.

There are essentially two parts to the movie: the slow building up of the mystery with anxiety creeping into the story and then a frantic escape that never really succeeds.  I am sitting here sixty years later and still feel both the creepiness and the adrenalin of the two parts. That is not a small achievement considering this is a genre that has evolved immensely on both accounts in the intervening years.

It is true that the actors are not top notch, but they are also not so bad that the movie falls flat on their account. Most of the regular people are just that and that is probably why they work so well. It is exactly because all these aliens are so normal and recognizable that they are freaky. For me the most horrifying scenes are those with the little boy who is scared of his mother and does not want to go home, yet later we see him perfectly at peace with his mother. Obviously the little boy has succumbed as well. It is not what we see, but what we know has happened.


“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was supposed to end with Miles standing on the highway trying in vain to warn people, but the studio was concerned about ending on such a downbeat. Instead a prologue and an epilogue were pasted on to tell us that in the end the warning did get out, hopefully in time. It would have been a great ending with Miles on the highway and it would have made it a true Noir, but although the addition feels artificial I suppose it was the best they could do. The world it not saved, far from, but at least it got a chance. Also I quite liked the flashback narrator. That gave it a good Noir feel.


I read that the movie has been considered a response to the McCarthy hearings, but I am not convinced of that. So many movies at this time were concerned with the invasion and subversion theme that this simply follows that track. It plays on a paranoia that was very much mid-fifties and just does a better job at that than most movies.

Needless to say I loved this movie and I knew I would. It is deservedly a classic and a must-see for any fan of the genre. And if you see something strange growing in your basement or greenhouse then get rid of it and be quick about it! And do not under any circumstances fall asleep!!!