Macbeth (1948)

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It’s difficult, even for a very forgiving fan like me, to not wonder if much of the now-celebrated innovations of Orson Welles’ later-career output weren’t just the manifestation of restlessness and hostility. Macbeth (1948), Welles’ adaptation of the Scottish play, was not the first film of his finished by someone else, but it would be the first of many of his films to be released in multiple versions. Audiences, critics and studios alike found his work confusing, indulgent and wildly out of sync with the times. It’s a more or less straightforward adaptation as far as plot and character motivation goes, but visually and conceptually, Welles’ Macbeth was probably one of the oddest films anyone of the time had ever seen. As Macbeth (Welles), a celebrated Scottish soldier in the 11th century, and his general Banquo (Edgar Barrier) are riding home, they stumble across three gruesome witches, all praising a clay effigy of Macbeth and promising he is to become King of Scotland. Though Macbeth is unsure of his destiny, Lady Macbeth (Jeanette Nolan) is not, and urges her husband to kill King Duncan (Erskine Sanford) and essentially chase off his son Malcolm (Roddy McDowell) so he can claim the throne for himself. Once the deeds are done, more killings are required, the paranoia, guilt, madness and death are the result. Macbeth is an uneven film, surely intentionally, but its schizophrenic nature doesn’t always work. Welles is a fine if workmanlike Macbeth, while Jeanette Nolan is revelatory as the over-heated … Continue reading

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

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Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) is a successful commercial artist in love with the high-powered (and very married) attorney Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews), the kind of smooth operator that charms everyone but his beleaguered wife (Ruth Warrick). At an uncertain point in their affair, Daisy meets the sensitive war veteran Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda), a widower who may be unstable but is also very kind. In an attempt to get away from her toxic relationship with Dan, Daisy marries Peter and they try to build a life together. Complications ensue — would there be a movie if they didn’t? Director Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon (1947) treats its titular character in a comparatively realistic, morally way, especially in its portrayal of a love triangle that goes completely and unsurprisingly wrong. It’s fascinating to see so many critics and fans, both now and then, consider Dan to be the quintessential “great guy,” someone gregarious and successful and handsome and everything a woman could want. To me, Dan has always come across as a parody of the cinematic perfect man, a mash-up of an old pre-Code ruthless businessman with the current (for 1947) hard-boiled private dick. He shows his contempt for people by constantly calling them “honey bunch” or, for variety, “sugar plum,” which has lead many to consider Dan a hard-boiled character and the film, by extension, a film noir, but I don’t think it is, not strictly anyway. Dan may fight for the rights of the disenfranchised, but he can’t be arsed … Continue reading

Gas-s-s-s (1970)

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Gas-s-s-s investigates the hippie generation’s fear of aging and responsibilities as the 1970s begin, as they got older and life started to seem less in their control. All of the “youths” of the film look 25 or older; they’re definitely old enough to know better… and to be worrying about whether the gas would still be around on their 25th birthdays, if we’re taking the plot literally, which we probably shouldn’t. Yet amidst the Edgar Allan Poe parodies and doofy football players is a very real sense of people hoping for one last fling before they have to cut their hair and turn into yuppies, as God and Greyhound intended. Continue reading

Johnny Guitar (1954)

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Discussions of Johnny Guitar are plagued by the constant question of why Ray and Crawford would make such a Western. The answer is simple: Why not? Continue reading

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)

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Mabuse is a timeless character: irretrievably depraved, charismatic, over-the-top and sarcastic, the kind of evildoer who just really loves his job. Continue reading

Five Days One Summer (1982)

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Dr. Douglas Meredith (Sean Connery) is on a climbing holiday in the Alps with his young wife Kate (Betsy Brantley). They’re happy and in love, but complications arise when Johann (Lambert Wilson), a handsome young climbing instructor, falls for Kate, and she begins to have feelings for him as well. Douglas senses the competition as well as the unstoppable passage of time, and in a bid to prove his masculinity and woo Kate back, suggests a treacherous climb with only Johann as his guide. An avalanche intervenes and only one man returns to Kate… but is it the man she wants? Five Days One Summer (1982), director Fred Zinneman’s last film, was a strange entry in a year that also saw films like Victor/Victoria, Porky’s, Silent Rage, Tron and Blade Runner. A quiet, deliberate affair, Five Days is impressive for its locations and styling, for the practical effects, and the commitment to creating art, if only for art’s own sake. Cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno does a fantastic job during the climbing scenes, though elsewhere the quality of the film ranges from too dark to see to so soft you almost can’t make out anything tangible.  Janet Maslin called Sean Connery “dependably sturdy” in this film.   Still, the general consensus, both then and now, is that Zinneman didn’t pull off the intimacy necessary to make the film work. Most find the film far too slow — Variety called it “Five Summers One Day” — but I find the complaints about pacing … Continue reading

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)

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Christopher and Katy (played by Mark Lester and Chloe Franks, respectively) are troubled siblings who spend their days at the orphanage dodging the mean adults who work there and refusing to speak at all. They both hope to go to the lavish annual Christmas party held at the mansion of the nice Mrs. Forrest (Shelley Winters), but only 12 children are picked each year, and neither of them make the list. The two stow away in the trunk of a car headed to the party and sneak in anyway, which horrifies the orphanage staff, but which Mrs. Forrest has no problem with. It’s a nice sentiment, but if she doesn’t care that there are more than 12 children at her home, why can’t all of the kids in the orphanage go? As lovely as the rich Mrs. Forrest seems — “Call me Auntie Roo,” she tells the kids — in reality, she’s disturbed, having never gotten over the death of her young daughter Katherine years ago. In fact, as we learned in the opening scenes, she keeps her daughter’s decomposed corpse in a cradle upstairs, and no one, save a few people close to Mrs. Forrest, even know the girl is dead. Auntie Roo is not well.   After repeated séances with no result, Mrs. Forrest starts to believe that little Katy is the return of Katherine. She wants to adopt Katy, but her brother Christopher is against it. With narrowed eyes and a lot of hate in his heart, … Continue reading

Doc Hollywood (1991)

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Doc Hollywood hearkens back to the days of older, inoffensive entertainment, including a scene with an outdoor late night showing of The General (1927), though there are a few moments that belie the film’s mild-mannered demeanor, mainly an early scene when Lou is introduced to us, completely and gratuitously nude. A local resident who was present for much of the filming in Micanopy, Florida, the stand-in for the fictitious Grady, later said that the nude scenes were included specifically to avoid a G rating. Continue reading

It’s a Date (1940)

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It’s a Date is impressive in that it presages the post-war bobby soxer films by a few years, as well as the Hawaiian fashion trend; in fact, Peter Stackpole’s now-famous photo spread featuring Hawaiian and Polynesian fashions in Life Magazine didn’t go to print until after It’s a Date was released. This was clearly meant to be a trendy film, one to appeal to the younger crowd, particularly the ladies who were Durbin’s biggest fans. Continue reading

My Fellow Americans (1996)

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My Fellow Americans is exceedingly kind to its two leads, who are allowed to be charming and charismatic and fun, and whose sheer exuberance turns a strange tale about the attempted assassination of two former presidents into a delightful, lighthearted comedy. Continue reading