The Lady Eve (1941)

The Lady Eve – 1941

Director – Preston Sturges

Starring – Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and Charles Coburn

Screwball comedies are a tricky mixture of absurdity and reason.  The absurdity gives these films their energy, their source of conflict, and it keeps the plot moving forward.  This is the defining element of the screwball comedy, and while absurdity can go a long way to tickling our funny bones, it ultimately can fall flat or fail outright if there isn’t some grounding element, some person, or people who play it straight.

Howard Hawks apparently once said that the flaw with his famous screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, was that everyone was a screwball.  There was no gauge by which the audience could compare the antics of the crazy characters with those of a normal, functioning, human being.  Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s inclusion in the screwball genre, The Lady Eve works very hard to ground the film squarely on the shoulders of the straight man, Henry Fonda.  He is the lens through which the audience can clearly see, appreciate, and enjoy the madcap antics of the family of con artists and ne’er-do-wells that populate The Lady Eve.

The story is fairly simple, a young, rich, handsome, young man, Charles Pike (Fonda) who prides himself on his zeal for new experiences and adventure, begrudgingly learns first hand how naive he really is when he encounters a group of traveling hucksters (Stanwyck and Coburn primarily) on a steamship back from the jungles of South America.  Friendly, shy, and the object of desire of all the single women on the ship, he makes an ideal mark for Jean Harrington (Stanwyck), the devious, whip-smart, and capable con-woman who is determined to relieve him of his money.

She and her father, the delightfully underhanded (Coburn), go work almost immediately, isolating, charming, and seducing Pike in short order.  The surprise comes for Jean with the sudden realization that she has fallen for Pike’s subtle, earnest charms.  All that remains is to gently break the news of her background as a card-shark, and that is when the trouble starts.

While he is the foundation upon which the premise is based, the least engaging character is Fonda’s Pike.  He is by and large just another set-piece for the more interesting grifters to play against.  He is used as prop almost like someone might use a gun or a hat, to build upon and explore their character.

Stanwyck on the other hand, really has room to spread her wings.  Her role in Double Indemnity, as the murderous, money, hungry wife, may have been more iconic, but this one is far more developed and way more fun to watch her work.  During a con, Jean wears a mask, a different personality to blend in and follow the script that’s been written, never able to show her true self.  The irony is that the face she wears when she is being herself is also a mask to hide and protect herself from danger, like falling in love and getting hurt.  It’s when she finally realizes that she’s fallen in love with Pike that she starts to show her real personality.

When Pike learns of her past, and her deception, she has to develop yet another character, so she can win him back, and there you have the titular, Eve.  The gusto that she brings to the role of Jean/Eve is infectious, and quite frankly the best part of the film.  The longer we watch Jean work, the more we want to see, and the more we see, the more we like her.

The Lady Eve is packed with gags, all vying for the audience’s attention.  From Pike’s rough around the edges bodyguard mixing with high society, to the slap-stickish food based humor in the second half of the film, Preston Sturges really throws everything including the kitchen sink at us hoping to connect.  While that stuff is funny, it’s really an after thought as compared to the interaction between Stanwyck and Fonda, so much so that it can almost be distracting, and take you out of the movie.  Almost, but thankfully, not quite.

The Lady Eve gives me hope for screwball comedies.  It joins the ranks of “His Girl Friday” as being madcap, exciting, and genuinely funny, without seeming ridiculous and un-restrained.  The characters, while bigger than life, aren’t too big, too crazy, and they never become unbelievable, which is death for any movie character.  Definitely a good example of Screwball Comedy that is, itself, good.

“Men are dumb.” – Ashley

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Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Hannah and Her Sisters – 1986

Director – Woody Allen

Starring – Michael Caine, Diane Wiest, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Woody Allen,

I have a long history of not really liking the films of Woody Allen.  I feel my reasons are and were sound, and should you like to know why I haven’t liked them, you can see them explained here and here, or I can quickly summarize…Diane Keaton.  Okay, to be fair, that isn’t the only thing that doesn’t appeal to me about his films, it certainly doesn’t help them out in my opinion though.  But recently the strangest thing happened to me.  I saw a Woody Allen film that while well thought of, isn’t one of the ones that every one mentions when talking about Allen (those being Annie Hall, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the worst film ever made, Manhattan Murder Mystery).  The film in question was inhabited by real characters that actually could exist outside of the confines of New York City (although they don’t necessarily need to).  They are subject to a real emotions, and motivations that weren’t added for comic value.  Strangest of all…I liked this film quite a bit.

Mia Farrow plays Hannah, the trustworthy, dependable, and somewhat discounted anchor to her family.  Her sisters, played by Diane Wiest, and Barbara Hershey, use her as a means of support in their endeavors.  Hannah’s parents waffle between lovey-dovey, starry-eyed affection, and drunken accusations with a touch of distrust.  In an effort to hold their relationship together, Hannah is put into the role of arbitrator and peace-keeper, all the while attempting to keep her own life and marriage on track.

Hannah’s husband, Eliott, played by Michael Caine, sees her as a boring but necessary part of his life, instead lusting after her sister Lee.  The both of them enter into an adulterous relationship based solely on lust and desire, and only later confront their desires for stability, reassurance, and regularity that each receives from Hannah.  Though Wiest’s character, Holly, has a much less destructive relationship with her sister she is still constantly borrowing money which she uses for a variety of failed career ventures.

As usual Allen puts himself in the film, although this time around he relegates himself to a much smaller role.  As Mickey, Hannah’s ex husband, he plays one of the few redeemed characters in the film (not in a bad way mind you, every one in the film is perfectly cast in their roles), and the relationship that develops throughout the course of the film provides the film with a rich, tangible, and completely enjoyable center.

Though it lacks the groundbreaking structure of something like Annie Hall, and doesn’t quite provide the super iconic imagery of something like Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters is by far one of Allen’s best (right up there with the aforementioned Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors).  Allen’s fascination with the existence of God and the meaning of life has never been handled better than it is here, and neither has the pay-off from such questions.  By the end of the film, my heart was singing, and my own troubles were forgotten, left for another time.

It is at this point that Allen fans could rightfully tell me, “I told you so…” (although they’d be only half right).  So consider me told.

Body Heat (1981)

Body Heat – 1981

Director – Lawrence Kasdan

Starring – Willaim Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Ted Danson, and Richard Crenna

My apologies for the lengthy delay in-between my last review and this one.  I’ve been doing quite a bit of travel for work to places such as the Ukraine, New York, Washington DC, and appropriately for this film Florida.  I’m back safe and sound, and am ready to jump back into writing about movies.

Body Heat, a steamy, dastardly, pot-boiler thriller, set during an oppressive heat wave in southern Florida, is actually a re-make of another film on the 1001 Best Movies List, Double Indemnity.  Being a re-make is something that I would normally frown upon, but in this case I had no idea going in that it was based on anything else, much less something so highly regarded in my opinion as the Billy Wilder classic about murder for profit.  If I had known about its origin before starting it, I very well could have given it negative marks right off the bat, which would be totally unfair and completely undeserved.  Body Heat, to the credit of its director, Lawrence Kasdan, doesn’t really try to re-invent Double Indemnity, but instead pays homage to it with smart writing, acting, and the inclusion of the element that would never have been able to be in the original…the raw sensuality.

William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a smarmy lawyer who is only just good enough at his job.  One day, in a particularly hot summer in his little town in Florida, he meets Kathleen Turner’s sultry Matty Walker.  Drawn instantly to the beautiful young woman, Racine finds himself getting drawn further and further into a shadowy path leading to the murder of her husband, played by Rambo’s Richard Crenna.  The deeper he gets, the more he loses control of the situation until finally it’s just a matter of time before the cops catch up with them or a bullet does.

William Hurt provides the structure for this film, without him the story wouldn’t have any form or direction.  The real magic, however, lies in Kathleen Turner’s performance as the wounded, conniving, insidious, sexual, and confident Matty Walker.  Turner keeps the audience guessing till the end as to which side of the conflict she’ll land on.  She truly is a wounded animal who’s scared, and trying to survive.  If there were only one reason to see this film, it would be Turner’s spot on performance, but I would have no problem recommending this film with any number of examples.

Building on the impressive reputation of the original film presented the challenge of allowing it to become its own entity without straying too much from what made it good in the first place.  The two elements present in this one not in the original are the oppressive heat, and the sensuality of the main characters.  The thrill for the Fred MacMurray character in the original was to see whether or not he could actually get away with it, not so much the allure of Barbara Stanwyck, or the draw of the money.  Racine is completely under the spell of Matty from the moment he meets her, a fact he learns a little too late.  Matty on the other hand isn’t simply lashing out at an unhappy marriage, or an unhappy life, instead she has her sights set on a goal for the entire duration of the film.

This film is completely worth a viewing, whether you’ve seen Double Indemnity or not (for that matter the same is true of Double Indemnity).  Lawrence Kasdan populates a completely believable world full of characters we simultaneously recognize and marvel at.  Body Heat is how re-makes should be done.

“You know how sometimes you wanna fuck someone so bad, that you gotta throw a muthafucking chair, through their muthafucking window?  Yeah, that’s this movie.” – Ashley

Frenzy (1972)

frenzy

Frenzy – 1972

Director – Alfred Hitchcock

Starring – Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, and Anna Massey

Most of Hitchcock’s work has a certain smirk to it.  It gives off the impression that there is some grand farce that everyone is in on, with of course, the exception of it’s characters.  The dialogue is witty and playful, yet to the point.  And the characters, while possessing the skeleton and characteristics of a real person, usually seem like a vehicle for the glossy movie star to seem debonair (Cary Grant), righteous (Jimmy Stewart), glamorous (Grace Kelly), or diabolical (Peter Lorre).  Basically they provide movie stars an iconic memorable performance, delivered on a silver platter.  This formula is great fun to watch, and it leads to some the best movies that I’ve ever seen (Rear Window, North by Northwest, and of course Psycho), but in 1972’s Frenzy it is nowhere to be found.

I am used to the Hitchcock of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, in fact that is just what I was expecting.  A glamorous film, with a huge, name, star in the lead, swelling music, glossy close-ups, and those fake, staged post World War 2, American kisses, all while lightly exploring the seedy underside of passion and human nature.  What I got in Frenzy, was a grimy, living, breathing, murder story.  It had an unlikable, but realistic main character.  It had a truely reprehensible, yet utterly believable villain.  It had violence, brutality, and…gasp…nudity!  A Hitchcock film with nudity?  I never would’ve never guessed that something so contrary to the body of work that I knew and loved ever existed.

Jon Finch plays Richard Blaney, a down on his luck ex-RAF pilot recently fired from his job.  After borrowing on the good will of the people in his life, one of them turns up as a victim in a notorious spate of killings attributed to the “Neck-tie murderer”.  The police obviously finger Blaney for the killer, and start a manhunt to bring him in.  With the police on his trail he must find the real killer and clear his name. 

Early on in the film we learn the real identity of the killer, and we watch helplessly as he circles in on Blaney framing him for these crimes, and leading him towards the police.  Played by Barry Foster, the killer exudes a sleaze and a charm at the same time.  He is knows what he is, and operates not in spite of it, but because of it.  We come to understand that both men are essentially the same person, only one blames himself for his misfortune, and the other blames women.  As they go from friends to foils, Finch and Foster play nicely off of each other as they spiral closer and closer to being the same person, before Blaney discovers a humanity in himself.

As I’ve said earlier, most of Hitchcock’s films, are glossy and glamorous.  Not so with Frenzy.  The color palette of films shot in the seventies, muted and yellowish, sets the visual tone for the story perfectly.  While most studio films of the 40’s and 50’s are encapsulated in their own little realities, Frenzy is given room to breathe in the real world.  Everyone from the main characters on down to the secondary and tertiary characters looks and feels like real people.  They swear, they have sex, they get angry, and they get frightened.  While the cynicism, and dark humor typical of Hitchcock remains, it is backed up by a director not hindered by censors or morality codes.   It feels like this was Hitchcock’s first real opportunity to stretch out and tell the kind of story that he’d always wanted to. 

While I’ve always enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Frenzy really opened my eyes to just how creative and compelling a filmmaker he was.  I am looking forward to checking out more of his later work.  I hope it’s all just as good as this one!

This Just In…

1000 Movies You Must See Before You Die!

I thought of how much fun the idea of seeing all of these movies was to me, and equally of how much fun it would be to write about them all too.  It was at this point that a few things dawned on me.  I realized just how large this undertaking was, and how equally large the time commitment will be too.

I was daunted by the sheer volume of my endeavor.  I immediately started to formulate a way to lighten the load.  I’ve already seen a lot of movies, I thought, why shouldn’t I just write about the ones that I’ve already seen?  Yes!  That’s it!  I’d write about the movies in this book that I had already seen.  That way, I’d save a lot of time, and I wouldn’t be tempted to dwell on my own in-activity, and unsocial behavior.

This got me thinking yet again.  As I said before, I was looking forward to seeing all those movies…That’s IT!  I would go ahead with my initial plan of watching each of the movies that I haven’t seen and writing about each one individually, AND I would write about the ones I have seen (although these will be done in groupings so as not to accelerate my already rather sedentary behavior tendancies too much.)

Here is the first installment of the movies that I have seen.  They are not quite as in depth as the reviews that I have done and plan to continue doing for the new material, but they provide a good summary of what I liked and/or what I didn’t like.

I hope you enjoy this bunch.  It covers the first movie in the book that I had seen, up through the end of WWII.  So…get reading already

Metropolis (1927)

I was lucky enough to catch this projected from a remastered 70mm print with lost footage re-integrated into the story.  It featured a live piano accompaniment, and featured written descriptions of scenes that were still “lost”.  At the same time, I was unlucky enough to see it while I was super, super tired.  There are some slow moments, and I was drooping at times.  Still, it was probably the best possible way to see Metropolis for the first time.

“Fuckin’ love it!” – Ashley

M (1931)

The Criterion Collection has introduced me to a wide variety of movies, including quite a few of the selections on this list.  M introduced me to foreign film in general, not to mention the fantastic Peter Lorre.

Scarface : The Shame of a Nation (1932)

I saw this with a couple of other fantastic American noir and crime films in a little theater on the left bank in Paris, the Action Christine for those who are in the know.  It was part of a week long mini-film-festival concerned with classic and overlooked American noir films.  I was able to catch a number of other great flicks including, Kiss Me Deadly, Key Largo, the version of The Killers from the sixties (with Ronald Regan, Lee Marvin, and John Cassavetes), and the topper, Charade.  I was surprised how much of this story of Scarface is recognizable later on in the Brian De Palma version.

It Happened One Night (1934)

I was introduced to this movie through a friend who was absolutely in love with it.  I was, at first a little skeptical, but came to appreciate it quite a bit.  I’m not sure why everyone makes a big deal about Clarke Gable in Gone With the Wind, but not in this one (I suppose I’ll find out later, when I watch it).

(**Warning Spoilers**)

“If a man nicks names you brat, it’s because he loves you.”  –  Ashley

The Thin Man (1934)

As this was a recommendation from numerous trusted sources, I may have gone into this one with elevated expectations, which as you may or may not know can be death on first impressions.  While I didn’t love it as unilaterally as I was led to believe that I would, I didn’t dislike it at all.  It was solid, but not discernible from a lot of other movies that I have seen from this period.

“Alcoholism is hilarious!” – Ashley

The 39 Steps (1935)

One of two of Hitchcock’s British movies that I’d seen after I’d tooled through almost all of his American stuff, (The Lady Vanishes being the other…), and while I liked The Lady Vanishes better, this was not without it’s charms.  By and large this seems like a stepping stone through which you can get to Hitchcock’s great works, although it is not great in and of itself.

“Genius begins…” – Ashley

La Grande Illusion  AKA  Grand Illusion (1937)

This is another of these movies that I was introduced to through the Criterion Collection.  When I saw this movie, it was the first time that I had either heard of or seen Eric von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, or Jean Renoir.  Von Stroheim in particular interested me, and I have since been looking for his epic, studio bankrupting movie, Greed.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

Snow White was the second movie that I ever saw in a movie theater (E.T. being the first), and since then, thanks in part to having a good number of girl cousins, friends, and going to a daycare where a good amount of the kids were girls, I was quickly overdosed on this movie (along with The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins).  That being said, upon my first viewing, I was enraptured.  I wanted to be the 8th dwarf, and I was terrified of the old witch with the apple.  Fucking scary!  This is how childrens stories can be.  They don’t have to be these antiseptic, polished, glittering trash-heaps that they came to be, straight to video sequels with crappy 3D animation.  Snow White set the standard, even IF I don’t really wanna watch it anymore.

“Teaching all pale, black-haired girls around the world that they are the most beautiful.” – Ashley

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I partially wrote this longer post of movies that I had already seen because of this movie.  I didn’t want anyone to think that just because I had seen it, to think that this might mean that I liked it.  I saw this in film school, as an example of the studio system of the 30’s and 40’s, and more specifically because it was THE classic screwball comedy.  I liked movies from this period, and more importantly I was a pretty big fan of Cary Grant, so it seemed like a natural fit.  Then along came Katherine Hepburn and ruined everything.  She plays the most annoying, murder-inducing, terrible fucking annoyance EVER!  I could not wait until it was over.  From 5 minutes in or so I was checking my watch, sending text messages to friends, trying vein to sleep, anything to avoid that shrill voice, and that irksome demeanor.  What made it worse was, that Cary Grant, put up with it to the point where his character started to exhibit affection for Hepburn’s.  This bastion of charm, class, and smooth masculinity was was so utterly ineffectual, that not only could he not save me from hearing this woman speak, but he stole two hours from me in the process.

“Holy shit, there’s a leopard in it!” – Ashley

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Who doesn’t like the Wizard of Oz?  It’s a little heavy on the songs, and musical routines which I don’t really go in for (making a lot of movies musicals in this book a little daunting), but the story and the fabulous imagery were far more than enough to outweigh them.

“Technicolor orgasm!” – Ashley

Rebecca (1940)

I liked Rebecca (come to think of it, I’m not sure that I didn’t like any Hitchcock movies), but I liked Notorious better.

Fantasia (1940)

This, like with a lot of different musicals, was pretty lost on me.  I’ve fallen asleep or gotten board and wandered off each time I’ve tried to watch this (3 separate times now).  The animation was great, but not quite enough I guess.

“Elephants in tutus.” – Ashley

Pinocchio (1940)

I enjoyed Pinocchio back when I saw it initially, but it was never quite as good, in my opinion, as The Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, or Robin Hood.  Maybe it was just the time period that I grew up in, maybe it was the animation style.

“So many sexual euphemisms, so little time…” – Ashley

The Bank Dick (1940)

W.C. Fields is a smarter, more adult, and more aware version of The Three Stooges.  He pokes fun at himself rather than poking fun at others or having them poke fun at him.  Don’t get me wrong, I love The Three Stooges, but every now and again it’s nice to see you don’t have to hit something with a hammer in order for it to be funny.

Citizen Kane (1941)

The enigma that is Citizen Kane…it is both vastly over and under-rated.  The idea that you can pick one movie in the scope of all that has come out to date and claim that it is the greatest movie ever made is a ridiculous one.  Equally ridiculous is the idea that that same movie is of no or little value simply because every other movie since then has co-opted the same bag of tricks.  Citizen Kane and Orson Welles set the standard, and now people get mad that in a sea of copy-cats, it no longer stands out to them.

“Oh, yeah.  It is real good.” – Ashley

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Fantastic, fantastic movie.  For one reason or another, before I had ever seen a Humphrey Bogart movie, I was under the impression that I didn’t like him as an actor.  This movie, The Big Sleep and Casablanca proved me wrong three times in a row.  Each was fantastic in it’s own way, but the addition of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre make this a contender for my favorite of the bunch.

Dumbo (1941)

This is my least favorite of the early Disney movies.  I didn’t quite know what to make of the bizarre pink elephant sequence, and I took the shame and teasing that were inflicted upon the titular character to heart.  I haven’t seen this one for a long time, but I’m not sure that I want to.

“Go hug your mom.” – Ashley

Casablanca (1942)

Check out my review of  The Maltese Falcon two entries above this one, and you’ll know how I feel about this one.  With a rousing story, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains you can’t help but love this movie.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Don’t get on the fucking plane!” – Ashley

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I like Shadow of a Doubt, but just before seeing it, I had seen The Third Man, and I was completely prepared to fall in love with it.  Joseph Cotton was the key.  He and the movie didn’t really stand out to me…correction, they weren’t able to blow me away the same way The Third Man had.  Despite this, I still enjoy watching it when I want to throw something on while I doing something else.

Gaslight (1944)

It was on my Grandpa’s insistence that I sat down and watched this one with him.  A well made movie, with the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, but I have to say, this spot could have easily gone to at least 2 dozen other movies (Charade, Miller’s Crossing, American History X, Leon The Professional, Bottle Rocket, El Mariachi, True Romance, Shallow Grave, Hard Boiled, Hearts and Minds, Le Cercle Rouge, and Ghost Dog to name just a few.)

Double Indemnity (1944)

I fell in love with Double Indemnity when I first laid eyes on it.  I seemed to ooze a certain coldness, and efficiency that I had never seen up until that point in movies.  I’ve heard other reviews of this movie citing Fred MacMurray as being the weak link in the chain, to not committing to the role enough (the reviewer was saying that he did this in most all of his roles), I disagree whole heartedly!  He may not have achieved the short lived notoriety of someone like James Dean or Clarke Gable (note: my definition of short lived may not match yours), but he was the right man for the job in each of the movies that I’ve seen him in.

“How not to commit a murder.” – Ashley

Murder, My Sweet  AKA  Farewell My Lovely (1944)

Murder, My Sweet was a good movie, but this is another slot given to a lesser contender.

Spellbound (1945)

When traveling in London I visited the Salvador Dali museum, expecting to see a host of what I thought were the artists more well known works.  Instead, I saw a bunch of his work that I had never seen before, including a number of artifacts from the movie Spellbound!  Ultimately, I think fairly well of my visit to the Dali museum, but that is mostly because of the items from the movie.  Spellbound, like the museum, has left a generally favorable impression on my mind, but it doesn’t go much farther than that.

“I wish I dreamed in Dali” – Ashley

Les Enfants Du Paradis  AKA  The Children of Paradise (1945)

This is a fabulous movie that you should go see.  Now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait….Wasn’t that awesome.  Well dig this…This whole movie was filmed during the Nazi occupation of France.  Film stock, supplies and artisans were in short supply, cast and crew were being routinely investigated by the puppet Vichy (read Nazi) government, and still they managed to pull off a staggeringly beautiful movie with beautifully thought out and constructed sets, top notch acting, and a story packed with anti-fascist allegory.  On top of this, the majority of the actors and crew were utilizing the “cover” of the movie in order to stay hidden, as many were French Resistance underground fighters.  Now go watch it again!

That is all for this first chapter…go watch all of these movies and write back to tell me what you think.