Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Flesh and the Devil (1926) movie poster

director Clarence Brown
viewed: 07/17/2017

The break-out film for then 21-year old Greta Garbo, a cinematic presence beyond age and time. Garbo would go on to several other films with director Clarence Brown and cinematographer William Daniels would become known as her “personal cinematographer”.

And much to Daniels’s credit, Flesh and the Devil is a gorgeous film, with some stunning shots and some impressive, beautiful set design. The film made Garbo a star and ignited a real-life romance between her and co-star and lead John Gilbert.

Garbo is Felicitas von Rhaden, a femme fatale who comes into the lives of Gilbert and his friend Ulrich (Lars Hanson), whose bromance is deeply affectionate and really quite touching.

If it wasn’t for the religiosity that drives the moral heft of the story, I would have liked it almost wholeheartedly. Gilbert and Garbo may set fire to the screen, but Gilbert and Hanson’s friendship and devastation is what makes the picture so tragic and beautiful. That, and Daniels’s amazing cinematography.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) movie poster

director Ernst Lubitsch
viewed: 12/31/2016

Boy meets girl, gets off on wrong foot with girl, winds up working alongside girl but still can’t stand her, doesn’t realize that they are anonymous pen pals deeply in love with one another. All this goes on in The Shop Around the Corner, Ernst Lubitsch’s blithe comedy starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

It’s deft and charming, adapted from a Hungarian play an oddly set in Budapest still (though never saw the outside of a soundstage no doubt). I found the Budapest setting odd since Stewart, Sullavan, and William Tracy (who plays Pepi the go-fer) are so utterly themselves (that is to say American) and that I can’t see what aspect of the story couldn’t have been transplanted to New York (also as a film set).

Why nitpick?  It’s delightful.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932) movie poster

director Edmund Goulding
viewed: 05/14/2016

Grand Hotel might not have “more stars than in the heavens” but the Best Picture Oscar winner did hail from MGM, the studio who touted that astronomical line.  It’s got Greta Garbo and her iconic “I want to be alone” line, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and a young Joan Crawford.  It’s an ensemble piece of drama made for a star-studded cast, each getting their moments to shine as they haunt the titular Grand Hotel in Berlin.

For a pre-code film, it’s not especially racy, though it has a little innuendo here and there.  Beyond its starry cast, the thing that struck me the most was the cinematography and set designs.  There are some trippy master shots looking down from the high mezzanines upon the main desk in the lobby floor.  I don’t know how all these were orchestrated but they are often eye-popping and create a singular sense of space and place for the action’s setting.

Some of the drama leans toward the maudlin and the film turns into more outright tragedy by the end.  It’s a film so much of its era in style and performance that it’s easy to imagine a modern audience finding it weird and overdone.  But it also has some true qualities that transcend the aspects that make it seem such a figment of its time.

In the long-run, I’m swinging between three and a half stars and four, though I think landing on the more conservative estimation.

Another Thin Man (1939)

Another Thin Man (1939) movie poster

director W.S. Van Dyke
viewed: 12/31/2015

The 3rd film in the Thin Man (1934) movie series reunites Myrna Loy, William Powell, director W.S. Van Dyke, and screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  I caught this as part of TCM’s Thin Man New Year’s Eve marathon, which was interesting, as good old Robert Osborne provided some insights into why the series of films was made with such odd gaps.  The first one in 1934, it took two years to get to the first sequel After the Thin Man (1936) apparently due to contract negotiations with Loy.  This film came out three years after the second one, due in part to tragedies in Powell’s life.

This one introduces Nicky, Jr.  All these years out, we all know that when series add babies they’re probably heading downhill.  Interestingly, he’s predicted at the end of After the Thin Man but is still a baby here in 1939.

Further out from the original, the drinking and merriment of those pre-code Hollywood days are more subdued.  But it would take more than a baby to subdue the charms of Nick and Nora Charles, particularly as played by Powell and Loy.  As in the other films, they make the movie well-worthwhile, this time with the mystery laid up around a rich old family scion who takes a bullet and the mixture of usual suspects that the Charleses have to whittle down to “whodunnit”.

Still charming, and a little less long than the prior film at 103 minutes, but still, I knew I wasn’t going to make it any further in the marathon.  And I didn’t.

The Naked City (1948)

The Naked City (1948) movie poster

director Jules Dassin
viewed: 12/14/2015

Jules Dassin and Mark Hellinger’s The Naked City could have been a really interesting anomaly.  Except, over a decade after it came out, it morphed into a television show, having no relation to Dassin nor Hellinger (who died before the film had even been released).  And it utilized the one super-iconic thing from the film, the line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

The real story though, in the film, is a pulpy procedural, showing the long, hard work of being a detective, working a case with not a lot of information, a murder of a model and the hunt for her killers.  But it’s not the story that’s so interesting.  The film is shot in part in mock-documentary style, with a classic omniscient voice-over telling all as it is.  The adherence to this style grounds the film in aspects of neo-realism and documentary, pushing for a sense of realism over drama.

While all that is kind of interesting, the thing that really winds up being compelling is the fact that the film was shot entirely on location in New York City, even many interior shots.  In a way, outside the story’s drama, we have a depiction of New York on any given day, like something from People on Sunday (1930) or a much less jazzed up Man with a Movie Camera (1929).  The images of the city are truly revelatory, even when speaking of a city like New York that has been captured so much and so often on film.

It’s interesting that Dassin utilizes location in several of his important films: San Francisco and Oakland in Thieves’ Highway (1949), London in Night and the City (1950), or Paris in Rififi (1955).

While the drama isn’t particularly rich and the stiffness of the documentary style might chafe you, somehow, this The Naked City transcends it all and becomes a truly worthwhile document.

The Far Country (1954)

The Far Country (1954) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 11/21/2015

1896, the Alaskan Gold Rush, the “far country”, the Westernmost range of the Western.  This is the setting for Anthony Mann’s 1954 Western, The Far Country, his fourth of five Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart.

Aspects of the film echo of Bend of the River (1952), Mann and Stewart’s 2nd Western together.  In Bend of the River, Stewart played a driver who helped a family drive to their homestead in Western Oregon, navigating the ruthless markets and opportunists who try to rip them off when gold is discovered nearby.  The Far Country begins in another Pacific Northwest frontier town, this time Seattle, and Stewart’s character, Jeff Webster, isn’t aiding a family unit, but shepherding his own team of cattle to Alaska for a big score.  And while he manages to dodge the shysters and thieves in Seattle, he runs afoul of the even more ruthless kingpin in Skagway, Judge Gannon (John McIntire).  The judge, having all authority, just takes his cattle without any chance of recompense.

As Jeff, Stewart isn’t as kind-hearted as his character in Bend of the River.  He’s looking out for #1, and to some extent, his #2, Ben Tatum (the always enjoyable Walter Brennan).  When he manages to free himself (and his cows) to hit the far country, he finds the same villains of Skagway have invaded Dawson City.  But his moral compass only looks to his own profit and he winds up selling to the villains, just to make a buck.

It’s an interesting contrast, these two characters.  Under the sway of a pretty young thing, Renee (Corinne Calvet), and through further ruthlessness by the local villains, Jeff comes around to learning to protect the town and the budding American society laying its seeds in the icy, isolated soil.  He’s forced to do right, to protect and support the good people from the bad, rather than disinterestedly looking only out for himself.  Some vague critique of isolationism or something?

Shot in parts in Canada, like other Anthony Mann Westerns, the natural landscapes are used to significant effect.  The Far Country is an interesting and well-made picture.

Greed (1924)

Greed (1924) movie poster

director Erich von Stroheim
viewed: 06/14/2015

Considered one of the Silent Era’s masterpieces, perhaps one of all-time cinema’s masterpieces, Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 film Greed is indeed a major film of note.  It is also one of the epic masterpieces that was so sprawling in length (the original cut of the film was reportedly 7 to 10 hours long) that it was also ruthlessly edited down to a duration and form that the director, von Stroheim, ultimately utterly disowned.  The original uncut version has been described as “the Holy Grail” of film preservationists, but what we have here is the 140 minute release that MGM went with and which tanked at the box office, leading to Hollywood infamy.

Really, though, it seems that a lot of von Stroheim remains intact in this film.  Certainly, even at 140 minutes, Greed is still considered a masterpiece of cinema.

I had caught Greed at some point on public television.  I’m not sure when this was exactly.  I want to say it was in the  1980’s when I was first getting interested in film, because I remember hearing about it, its notoriety, and being interested, though daunted by the length.  The luminous and terrific ZaSu Pitts struck me at the time as reminding me of my high school girlfriend.  However much of the film I caught, I’m certain I didn’t catch it in its entirety.  It has since been one of the films I’ve most wanted to see again.

TCM plays all kinds of great movies and last Sunday they offered two films that I had long harbored desires to see, Dave Fleischer’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) and von Stroheim’s Greed.  You never know with TCM, what films will be available on demand for a while after airing, or available on TCM.com for a while after airing, or which films will end up in rotation again in a few months.  Such is their programming cycle, so I made it a point to watch the movies while I had a chance.

Greed is adapted from Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague, which is a tale of vice and avarice, set in Polk Gulch in San Francisco.  When published, McTeague was a tale of the times, a sociological parable, and a somewhat raw attempt at realism.  I’ve read the novel, and it’s really quite something.  But where the novel is interesting and well-worth reading, it’s certainly not “literature” at its highest levels, where arguably von Stroheim’s adaptation elevates the material to one of cinema’s most significant works.

Shot on location in San Francisco, Northern California, and Death Valley, the film stars Gibson Gowland as McTeague, the unlicensed dentist, Pitts as Trina, his wife and downfall, and Jean Herscholt as Marcus, Trina’s onetime boyfriend and villainous adversary turned by greed and envy.

The Greed we have is still remarkable.  The ending is really quite amazing, quite a lot as in the novel itself, an escape into Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth, utterly desolate and doomed, two men fight to the death but become chained together in handcuffs, leaving them both to ultimately die alone and far from anything, except the corpse of a horse and a bag of money with no value to them at all.

There is too much to say, too much to comment upon, for me to blather on about.  Besides, it’s been said and delved into far more deeply than I can with just one recent viewing.  I’m cutting it short here.  But what can I say, it’s an amazing film.

Harvey (1950)

Harvey (1950) movie poster

director Henry Koster
viewed: 12/31/2011

I hadn’t watched a movie on VHS in so long….  I actually had to figure out how to re-hook up my VCR.  And it took some work.

With my kids back from Australia, I wanted to find a good movie for our New Year’s Eve movie night.  I wanted a classic and the movie that I’d ordered from Netflix had not yet come in, so I trundled down to the now nearly anachronistic “Ye Olde Video Shoppe” and browsed to see what they had to offer.  Harvey was actually one of the top ones that I was looking for.   I had an odd feeling for The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which has the New Year’s Eve thing going for it.  Oddly, I recall seeing that film a number of times as I was growing up.  But the pickins was slim but ultimately I found Harvey on VHS.

In the end, Felix had a bit of a migraine so it was just Clara and I that watched it.  Great fun, I must say.

Though as a kid I watched The Poseidon Adventure many times, I had never seen Harvey (not that these films have anything in common, mind you).  Not until a friend enlightened me some 20 or so years ago and I was brought in to the wonder and enjoyment of this classic film.

I have always loved Jimmy Stewart, ever since I recall being first introduced to him via cinema.  Harvey was one of his personal favorite roles and it’s doubtlessly one of his best.  Adapted from a Pulitzer-winning play by Mary Chase, Harvey is the story of Elwood P. Dowd, a man without a care in the world whose best friend is a 6 foot something invisible rabbit.

Of course, everybody thinks he’s crazy.  Especially his older sister Veta (played by the amazing and Academy Award winning Josephine Hull) and his niece, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), both of whom are trying to re-connect in the town’s society and find Myrtle Mae a man.  Embarrassments lead Veta to finally try to have Elwood committed.  Nearly slapstick insanity ensues when Veta gets committed instead.

The whole film plays off of Elwood’s sublime charm, ease, and happiness.  He’s unflappable, blissed-out almost, a model of kindness, gentility.  He’s also a drunk.

Interestingly, the film treats his alcoholism blithely.  He’s never shown to be “drunk”, per se, though he is constantly ordering two martinis, one for him and one for Harvey.  If alcoholism is potentially a cheerful state of being in the film, psychiatry is anything but.  The story is a paean to the mystical, magical world of fantasy to which we all can belong in strict converse to the “reality” that drugs and forced cold baths bring about.  Ultimately, it’s a cab driver who notes how he meets all kinds of wonderful folk on the way to the sanitarium but they always come out as gruff realists, unfriendly and unkind.  This is what ends up saving Elwood.

Surely, psychiatry around 1950 featured probably as many curses as cures, but let’s face it, who’s ever met a perpetually cheery, benign, open, gentlemanly drunk?

In the end, it’s revealed that Harvey is a “pooka”, a Celtic fairy spirit that takes animal form quite often and thanks to a few little effects, it’s made clear that he does exist.  So there is a magical world, after all.  Harvey is a big invisible rabbit, not a pink elephant.  And the kindness and gentility of Edwood P. Dowd is more of a testament to how people would be well-suited to slowing down, showing one another courtesy and interest, and knock back a few martinis while you’re at it.

Clara enjoyed the film quite a bit.  As did I.  And it is indeed one of the best Jimmy Stewart films there is.  And there are a lot.

Night and the City

Night and the City (1950) movie poster

(1950) dir. Jules Dassin
viewed: 03/15/10

Better late than never, I am discovering the work of director Jules Dassin.  It’s not like it’s a secret discovery.  The fact that most of his films that are available on DVD are Criterion Collection editions tells you pretty safely that he’s solid stuff.  Over the past year or so, I’ve watched Rififi (1955) (my favorite) and Brute Force (1947) and now his 1950 film, Night and the City, and all I can say is I can’t wait to watch the next one.

Dassin was one of the filmmakers who was chased out of Hollywood during the Red Scare and blacklisted.  Night and the City was filmed on location in London, and essentially was his last film for the Hollywood system that stymied him.  Even though his name has such a European sound to it, he’s American, from New York and he made serious contributions to the film noir aesthetic and period crime picture.

Night and the City stars the fantastic Richard Widmark as the poor sap who strives so hard but just doesn’t have what it takes to make it big, only what it takes to make a big mess.  He gets involved in a rather convoluted scheme to “take over professional wrestling in London”, aiming to shaft the current promotor, played by a young Herbert Lom.  He teams up with a legendary Greek wrestler and his protoge and plans to run roughshod over Lom, protected because the honorable Greek legend is Lom’s semi-estranged father.

It’s kind of confusing to explain, and there is this other angle, borrowing money from the wife of the bar owner that he works for, she thinking they’ve got a “thing”.  And then her husband suspects and puts the bite on Widmark.  Anyways, it’s a world of duplicitous people and honest people, and sometimes, quite often, each person is both, honest and duplicitious.

The cinematography is amazing, using the city streets of London and the shadowy offices and apartments of the characters as cages for these would be prisoners.  Or maybe they are all just prisoners of their own situations.  When Widmark is running from the whole city, he is chased across a construction site and climbs the stairs to hide, but has to attack to survive.  The scene is brilliantly filmed, moving the camera from shot to shot and catching Widmark’s harried face in varying angles of sweat and fear.

It’s excellent stuff.

Winchester ’73

Winchester '73 (1950) movie poster

(1950) dir. Anthony Mann
viewed: 05/14/03

I grew up in the South, in Florida to be exact, despising many things that I associated with Southern culture: rednecks, blue jeans, chewing tobacco, country music and Westerns. The litany of those things detailed shows how ill-informed and indiscriminate I was in consigning things to my list of dislikes. Though I still dislike rednecks and tobacco products, I have come to appreciate many other things that I associated rather blindly with one another, some more readily than others.

I came upon the Western in England, of all places. On the “telly” on BBC and Channel Four, frequently in the afternoons the films that would be played would be the great symbols of America, the Westerns of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I got quite into them and saw quite a few, but never came close to having seen even all of the interesting or important films. I want to say that I did see a good Anthony Mann Western among the viewings, but I can’t recall it. Winchester ’73 was recommended to me by a former film school chum, who credited it as being his primary influence into converting him into a fan of the Western.

It’s an interesting film with a surprisingly notable cast. Jimmy Stewart stars, Shelley Winters is the love interest, and also features an interesting performance by Dan Duryea, Rock Hudson as an indian chief (amusingly bad Hollywood casting and depiction of Native Americans — though Hudson is a notably young, strapping buck), and Tony Curtis in a bit part. The film’s Monument Valley setting is as beautifully rendered as in a John Ford Western, and the narrative is cleverly structured and literate yarn that follows a stolen Winchester rifle as it passes through several hands, leaving each usurper dead as it passes on.

When I asked my film school chum what the nature of the discussion was of this film in his classes, he said that it was the “gun as phallus,” a classically Freudian reading, the thing that every man must have and is willing to die in trying to procure. It’s interestingly lethal to those who fail to maintain it. And the landscape is rife with phallic cacti surrounding the players in the desert. It’s an amusing reading, and that is why I share it with you.

After seeing The Magnificent Seven in the theater a couple of weeks ago, I had been a-hankerin’ to see some more Westerns, so don’t be surprised to see some more classics showing up here in the DVD section, pardner.