Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again – 1939

Director – George Marshall

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, and Brian Donlevy

From the early 30’s on through the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the United States needed someone to look up to, someone to stand strong against adversity, and live up to the wholesome ideals of a bygone era (often regardless of what age they were living in), the world looked to Jimmy Stewart.  Perennially playing roles of such strong moral character, and unwaivering goodness, Stewart seemed to me to be a ham-fisted actor.  Someone lacking the subtlety to play a real person, instead only able to embody a general sense of good and right.

While his career is one filled with good guy roles, and white hats, I may have misjudged Jimmy Stewart the actor.  In Destry Rides Again, Stewart arrives in a lawless town controlled by local muscle and kept in line through temptation and booze (temptation in the form of gambling and Frenchy, a saucy burlesque performer played by Marlene Dietrich).  It becomes obvious, even in my previous sentence, that he is going to at least attempt to clean things up, and save the cow-like townsfolk from their own vices.  He plays Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., son of the town’s last good sheriff Destry, Sr. 

From there you can just about guess where the story is going to go, Destry arrives, proves himself in corruptible, and is challenged until the very end by the town’s strongman, Kent, played by Brian Donlevy.  Now comes the point where the predictable stuff ends…  Oh, sure, Stewart is still a good guy, and he has right on his side, and he never gives up, but he does it in a subtle believable way.  He doesn’t preach and condemn the actions of anyone.  He simply leads through example, shedding the light of day on the depravity to which the townsfolk had grown accustomed.  Rather than being smug and arrogant, he was likable and most importantly, a natural.

The other huge surprise comes in the form of the character Frenchy.  From the very start of the movie Marlene Dietrich plays her as conniving, opportunistic, and self-serving.  She clearly moves from town to town taking what she can and moving along when things dry up.  Stewart’s Destry presents a huge obstacle to her character’s continued success, and as such it is only natural that she would, at least initially, dislike him.  As the movie plays out, these two characters could easily go one of two ways.  There can either be a confrontation in which one of them loses everything, or one or both of the characters will change and there will be a romance.

I won’t mention here what actually does happen, but rest assured, the movie didn’t let me down.  Each of the characters was true to themselves and the only natural conclusion that could have happened did. 

So, despite being composed of some ingredients that I was less than excited about, Destry Rides Again, surprised me and became far more than the sum of it’s parts.  Not necessarily the best movie, nor one that deserves to definitely be on this list, but far better than I anticipated it to being when I started it.  I understand why it is that generations of American’s looked to Jimmy Stewart when they needed a hero, I don’t know that the film industry has anyone like him today, possibly Tom Hanks, and we may never have anyone like him again.

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The Hustler (1961)

The Hustler – 1961

Director – Robert Rossen

Starring – Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott

Heading into this movie, I realize now, I had a lot of pre-conceptions.  Not so much about the quality of the film, whether it would be good or bad, but more about the content of the film.  Thanks to countless posters in the various seedy billiards rooms that I frequent, I just assumed that there would be more pool than there was.  Also, I apparently wrongly assumed just who the hustler mentioned in the title of the film was.

For those, like me apparently, who aren’t too familiar with the story, The Hustler follows the driven ambition of “Fast” Eddie Felson.  Felson, played famously by Paul Newman is a small time hustler looking to beat the best in the billiards game, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), and claim the crown of the best pool player around.  Fats along with his shifty gambling buddy played by George C. Scott, seeing Felson’s reckless ambition for what it is, work to exploit, and take advantage of him.

Along the way, Fast Eddie meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a woman so defeated by life, that she takes his interest as a sort of cruel taunt.  In reality, he feels as though he can fully be himself around her, without apology for his shortcomings.  The attention re-awakens her hope for a normal life.  Life for the couple starts to feel more and more normal, until that is, the real hustler, George C. Scott’s Bert, convinces Fast Eddie to go out on the road, running hustles and making money for him.  This drives a wedge in their relationship and threatens to ruin everything they’ve built.

As far as the movies that feature the character Fast Eddie Felson, I prefer Martin Scorsese’s take with The Color of Money, although the Hustler is certainly a good, if not great movie.  It may be due to my mood going into watching it, but I was really hoping for more action than drama, more suspense than revelation.

I wanted the cocky Felson to be a bit tougher, a little less pathetic throughout the film.  He is far more of a victim than he is a hustler.  It is certainly viable to create a story that ends unhappily, this film just made me sad.  For a guy who is clearly looking for acceptance, he sure gives away the acceptance he gets from Sarah without a thought about her or even himself.  The only thing that seems to matter to him is being the best in the eyes of those who are laughing at him and using him for their own gain.  As a result I was left more than a little wanting, and felt rather downcast after finishing it.  Despite their best efforts to craft a noir-ish character and setting, the movie seemed to be missing something.  Even the cinematography and music seemed somewhat forgettable to me.

I don’t mean to treat this movie harshly, clearly it had an impact on me, just not the one I was looking for going into it.  The image I have of the character is what I was left with from The Color of Money, a man who despite defeat, doesn’t give up.  Despite, humiliation, has a certain self-awareness, and despite conventional relationships, has carved out a little place for himself in the world.

Truth be told, I’ve had a certain blossoming of respect for this film just in writing down my feelings about it, although I think it says more for Martin Scorsese re-visit of the characters than it does for anything else.

I would say that despite the fact that I liked it, I definitely didn’t like it enough to include it on the list of 1001 movies.  There was an element missing either in the movie or what I wanted from it i’m not sure, but it’s missing just the same.  Either way, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t quite work for me.

“They play pool and stuff” – Ashley

The Wolfman (1941)

The Wolfman – 1941

Director – George Waggner

Starring – Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Bela Lugosi

When mention is made of the “Classic Universal Monster” films, inevitably the first ones that spring to mind are Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.  Given enough time to consider the category of film you might eventually think up The Mummy, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but these are just monsters whereas all of the other three are more fully realized characters.  It just so happens that these characters also happen to be monsters.

The Wolfman in particular, is the most similar to the audience.  He is an everyman, someone who, unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, we get to know before he becomes a monster.  He is every bit a human being, someone who is scared of what is happening to him, and remorseful of the crimes he has committed because of his affliction.  But does this humanity, this pathos make the Wolf Man story better than that of Dracula, or Dr. Frankenstein?  Not quite.

The story is simple enough and fairly well-known, a man bitten by a strange wolf while out during a full moon, finds himself turning into a wolf himself and roaming around killing for pleasure.  Ultimately he must either find a cure or he must be hunted down and killed before the killing will stop.

While a lot of the same elements are in place as they are in Dracula and Frankenstein (Count Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi even makes an appearance as a Gypsy afflicted with the werewolf’s curse), Lon Chaney, Jr. isn’t quite up to the challenge of acting opposite someone like Boris Karloff, and the imagery doesn’t hold as much terrific horror as the gothic imagery put forth in Dracula.  The film didn’t seem like that much of a surprise.  Instead I felt like I knew the entire time what was going to happen.

The imagery, set design, and music all seemed much more formulaic to me than in either of the other two, on top of the less convincing story and powerful acting, The Wolf Man was just unable to get from under the weight of its big brothers.  Where it did succeed admirably, was it’s ability to draw the audience in through its main character.  In each of the other two monster films, the showpieces were the monsters.  These inhuman, alien beings, lacking much in the way of recognizable human characteristics, served to menace the villagers, despite their best efforts (frankenstein) or because of them (dracula).

We were introduced to the Wolf Man, however, while he was still a man.  We are given insight to his somewhat troubled relationship with his father, and his competitive relationship with his dead brother.  We see him pining away after the local girl, and the awkward situation he is put in when he’s introduced to her fiance.  So right away, we can relate to him.  He is a man, first and foremost.  A man who eventually has one more problem thrust upon him, the whole turning into a wolf against his will and killing, thing.  The unfortunate part is, this history we’ve built up never plays a part in the story beyond the introductions.  We are able to sympathize with him at first, but eventually he just becomes “another guy” that we don’t really care all that much about.

Despite it’s not being as good as some of the other Classic Monster films, The Wolf Man is still definitely worth a watch, although I would contend with its position on this list if only because it seems like a “well we can’t leave The Wolf Man out” type of pick.

“Always listen to your neighborhood gypsy” – Ashley

The Sting (1973)

The Sting – 1973

Director – George Roy Hill

Starring – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw

Some movies are just the right combination of pluck and chemistry.  They don’t have the strongest story, nor do they have the most gripping action, or the most beautiful girl, but they leave you with a pleasant feeling once the film is over.  Thanks to the long lasting effects of this pervasive pleasantness, films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hot Shots, and The Neverending Story still resonate with me, while still other films (much like the Wonka re-make) fail.  They possess some element that isn’t quantifiable or necessarily repeatable.  The stars aligned and the seas parted and low and behold the film is good.  The Sting sits firmly in this demographic, not at all bad, but somehow better than the sum of its parts.

Redford and Newman re-team in this buddy film set in the lawless Chicago of the 30’s.  Newman oozes confidence and cool as the con-man Henry Gondorf, who takes novice Johnny Hooker, Redford, under his wing in order to pull off the fleece of the lifetime against serious as cancer mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw).  There are a number of twists and turns, red-herrings and surprises on the con-men’s road to revenge, yet the whole tone of the film stays light and fun.  Despite some marvelously dower moments by Robert Shaw’s Lonnegan, the stake never really seem that high, although it is still a pleasure to watch all of the three main actors do their thing.

Cinematographically, the film rides a thin line between stylized and cartoon, (a line that fellow 70’s heart-throb Warren Beatty went way, WAY past in Dick Tracy) and at times seems a little campy.  Still the look of the film sets a certain tone that works for the camaraderie of Hooker and Gondorf.  It looks exactly like the Disney resort “The Boardwalk” made me feel, nostalgic about a time I never thought I cared about.

Of all the creative elements, the least effective in terms of me continuing to enjoy the movie, was the musical score.  Despite the fact that it compliments the set design and look of the film, every time strains of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” began, I was immediately drawn out of the story.  Luckily, even though the music is a little goofy, it isn’t used to a degree where I couldn’t pay attention, I just gritted my teeth and eventually it would end.

By and large, I enjoyed this film quite a bit.  I saw the twists and turns for what they were long before they were revealed, but I blame my knowledge of modern movie conventions for that.  While it might not be the best con-man movie I’ve ever seen (that dubious honor goes to the super fantastic Paper Moon), I think it’s earned it’s spot on this list, even if that spot is towards the end.

“Learn to run your own con-game.” – Ashley

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Cool Hand Luke – 1967

Director – Stuart Rosenberg

Starring – Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Harry Dean Stanton, and Strother Martin

Combining religious imagery, southern drawl, male bonding, and a healthy dash of exuberance, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke has become more than the small story of a man’s stint in the clink, it has transcended its reach and become a meditation on the importance (or the lack of) of authority for authority’s sake.  Paul Newman, arguably one of the most iconic actors of his time, perfectly personifies independence, and the idea of anti-establishment.

The story deals with capture and incarceration of the titular, Luke, and his relationships with his fellow inmates, the guards that drive them, and with the bureaucratic warden who oversees everything in the prison.  In the first 5 minutes of the film, we see Luke cutting the heads off of parking meters, being caught, and sentenced to 2 years in prison.  While he is doing something technically wrong, the 2 year sentence seems a bit of an over-reaction to the weight of the crime.

Once in prison, Luke spends his time testing the boundaries set by both the inmates as well as those set by the guards.  Eventually bonds begin to form, and a precident is set as the other inmates begin looking up to Luke.  It is in this part of the film that the main relationship, that of Luke and George Kennedy’s Dragline, is solidified.  The two men start off as rivals; Luke is simply pushing buttons, a behavior that Dragline sees as threatening to his authority among the other inmates.  Over time, the men become friends, Dragline eventually becoming Luke’s biggest advocate.

There are many different theories on the internet about what the different factions represented in this movie represent.  There is quite a bit of religious iconography that appears in the composition of the film, and while that is a perfectly valid interpretation, I fell more in line with the societal similarities.  To start with, Luke.  He gets his own group because he is really a free radical.  He doesn’t follow any one set of guidelines despite what anyone else tries to force him to do.  Luke disrupts the set in stone flow established by the system (the Warden), and maintained by the guards.  He inspires change, and therefore straddles the line between respected and feared. 

Next we have the prisoners.  These men represent society, everyday people with faults and flaws.  Each has a place, a role in the story, and each seems to run on a set path (ones that eventually get thrown off by the arrival of Luke).  Despite the fact that each these men are convicted prisoners, all of them are relatable, and the majority of them are downright familiar, almost good.  They represent all mankind.  The guards are an obvious stand in for the law, specifically the police.  These men keep the peace, and enforce the will of the bureaucracy, often utilizing fear, threat of violence and force (most personified by the anonymous and imposing “man with no eyes”). 

Finally, we have the warden.  In the story, the warden is one man, yet he represents a system of rule, or government that is infinitely larger than one man.  Since this system is most disrupted by the arrival of Luke, the warden is the most afraid of him.   What Luke represents is dependant upon which group you are from.

Despite it’s rather serious themes, Cool Hand Luke remains a rather jovial film, thanks in no small part to Newman’s performance as the eminently likable, Luke.  Newman and George Kennedy were both nominated for Oscars for their performances, with Kennedy taking home the statue for Best Supporting Actor.  Balancing out the weight and likability of the main characters is Strother Martin as the warden.  His measured performance never travels too far into the cartoon villain territory, yet it’s just strong enough to get the proper reaction.  Cool Hand Luke is another film that is populated with famous faces before they were famous, including Harry Dean Stanton, and Dennis Hopper. 

The film looks like a sweltering hot summer feels, sticky sweaty clothes and all.  The era, and the setting of the film are perfectly evoked in the cinematography, with sunbleached days and hot, dark nights. 

I am coming more and more to believe that Paul Newman was one of the industry’s best actors that never got the full recognition he deserved.  I am writing this (in part) to commemorate his birthday (01/27/2010).  So belated happy birthday to the late Mr. Newman!  What we have here, is a failure to communicate!  Well…I hope that’s not the case, anyway.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – 1947

Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring – Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, and George Sanders

I may be run out-of-town on a rail for saying this, but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was a pretty stupid movie.  Posturing and posing as a lighthearted romantic comedy about a young woman contending with the spirit of a salty old sea-captain, instead, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is the story of a lonely woman wasting her life and the lives of those around her (her daughter and maid) because she had a etherial fling with a crotchety old ghost for less than a year.  Not only is it implausible (even within the mythology of the world that is set up in the film), but it also annoyed me to the point of anger.

Firstly, the story.  Gene Tierney plays Lucy Muir, who at the beginning of the film is a freshly widowed woman.  Her first order of business is taking her daughter, their maid, and parting ways with her prying, manipulative in-laws.  Their anger at her leaving them, and forsaking the memory of her late husband is brushed casually aside.  She gives as her reasoning the fact that there was little, if any, real love in the marriage, and without another word, they’re off.

The sort of wacky, lighthearted comedy kicks in for a little while, as she goes through the trial and error of buying a home, discovering that it’s haunted, and acclimating herself to her etherial housemate.   It is from this point that the romance part of the romantic comedy kicks back in, as Rex Harrison’s Captain Gregg and Lucy begin to like, and eventually grow very fond of one another.  When the money that her dead husband left her dries up, Captain Gregg has her write out the story of his life, and sell it as her own.  It’s during the selling of this book, that Mrs. Muir meets a charming, living, man who sweeps her off of her feet.  Captain Gregg reacts at first by acting out, and eventually by giving up (telling her while she is sleeping that it was all a dream, and that she’ll think of it as a dream upon waking), and fading away.

***SPOILERS*** (Although the whole movie is a bit of a spoiler)

Well as it turns out, the suave, dashing man turns out to be an absolute cad, go figure, and Lucy soon finds out that he is married with children.  Not only that, but his wife doesn’t seem at all surprised by her showing up, and says that it has happened before.  After that, Lucy spends the rest of her life alone, growing old along with her trusty (read: stupid) maid, until she dies and is greeted as a ghost by the spirit of Captain Gregg.

***END SPOILERS***

As far as movies of this era go, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so mired in the antiquated notion that women are these weak willed pets that need constant tending to, and taking care of.  The idea that this woman would spend her entire life doing nothing for herself, be it for income, chores, for income, or in her interpersonal relationships is ludicrous.  When the money that her husband left her runs out, does she get a job?  Does she sell the big expensive, fucking house that she bought willy-nilly?  No, she claims that she’ll “find a way”, until a fucking ghost helps her.  The only friendships she has are the ghost that is trapped in her house, the maid that does everything for her, and the man who trips over himself to court her.  It is as insulting and demeaning to women as it possibly could be.  Now I understand that in the 40’s women generally stayed at home, and took care of the children.  They, very often, didn’t go to school, and never had to work (unless they were poor or of another color), but as a guy raised by a strong female role model, who herself was raised by a smart, capable, female role model as well as  a respectful, intelligent man, I hated this movie.

It doesn’t even really matter about the other qualities of the film, although it was competently shot, the sound and music were okay, and I don’t recall any of the actors accidentally messing up a line.  Based solely on the merit of what this film has to say, not only to women, both young and old, but to me, I definitely does NOT deserve to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

One final point, just to illustrate how poor this movie is, I would rather watch Katherine Hepburn, and Diane Keaton reading the phone book, to me personally, in my house, while I was tied to a chair, with bamboo slivers under my fingernails (well, maybe not the bamboo).  Watch one of these instead…”Lost In Translation”, “Singin’ In The Rain”, or “Garden State”

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“There’s a dead sea captain in it” – Ashley

Animal Farm (1954)

AnimalFarm

Animal Farm – 1954

Directors – Joy Bachelor, and John Halas

Starring – Gordon Heath, and Maurice Denham

Based on the novel by George Orwell, Animal Farm, is a not so thinly veiled allegory for Russia’s Communist Revolution.  The major players in history (Stalin, Trotsky, Czar Nicholas II, etc.), are each represented by a different character here.  The difference is that each of the main characters is an animal.  A farm animal in fact.  The animals, mistreated by the drunkard, self-absorbed farmer, rebel and drive the humans out re-naming the farm Animal Farm.  The animals set up a series of rules, or commandments that must never be broken, but to the leadership and power structure, these soon become obstacles that inevitably are trampled.

If you’ve had even a brief introduction to the history of the last 50 or so years, you probably have a decent idea where this is all going.  The problem for the movie, in my humble opinion, comes with the fact that the movie is animated.  It removes some of the credibility and some of the impact of the characters and their motivations.  In place of a fiery, tyrant with dictatorial ambitions, we get a smirking, cartoon villain with no more dimensionality than the description implies.  Each character seemed a little over-simplified, a feeling that is enhanced by the animation, and the abbreviated nature of the film as opposed to say…the book.

I suppose that I’ve railed on the style of the film a bit more than it deserves.  One very obvious benefit, was the fact that the film was able to be made because of it.  In 1954, there was no computer generated anything, no animatronic puppetry, and no realistic, cost-effective way of using real animals.  The only alternative left was to use hand drawn, painted, cell animation.  This style of animation, while perhaps not conducive to the story that is being told, has it’s own artistry and beauty.  The animated movies of today are all 3D, computer-generated, and all very similar to one another.  And while a lot of these films are fine films in their own rights, ground-breaking, creative, and well told, we’ve lost something with the passing of the age of 2D animated movies.  If only for that reason, I can forgive Animal Farm it’s short comings.

Through my research, after watching the film, I found that there was a newer straight-to-video version of Orwell’s classic, one made with CG enhanced, live action animals.  I haven’t seen it, but I have to admit, I’m a bit skeptical.  The more I think about it, the more I believe that Animal Farm (the 1954 version), is a sort of document of history.  The IQ of animated films of today rarely reaches the heights of something like Animal Farm, so the very fact that something like it got made at all, at any point, is a good thing.