For Reel

Song of the Thin Man (1947)
January 29, 2017, 3:28 pm
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Director: Edward Buzzell
2 Stars
song-of-the-thin-manThe latter half of the series of six Thin Man films moves further and further from their source—both in the sense of those involved behind the camera (W.S. Van Dyke’s passing in 1943 meant that the last two films were helmed by other studio hands) and in what they aspired for tonally. The penultimate entry, The Thin Man Goes Home, further explored Nick Charles (William Powell) by setting the narrative in his suburban childhood home, and the change of location and pace felt like a jump start for a series that threatened to grow tired. Similarly, Song of the Thin Man has new ambitions and is undoubtedly the most unique entry in the series. Unfortunately, if the idea is compelling on paper, the execution is largely lackluster. The conceit is that Nick and Nora (Myrna Loy) are now complete out of their element—the film, which takes place on gambling boats and jazz clubs, is effuse with contemporary lingo and youthful, hip faces. Whereas the married couple were always the suavest people in the room, Song of the Thin Man bravely casts them as out-of-touch. The thought of placing the 1930s pairing within the context of a radical new subculture is inspired, but it means Nick and Nora lack the charm and sophistication of the previous entries by design. The screenplay offers fewer memorable quips, and Loy in particular is hurt by having little to do (Loy’s dislike for the film is shown in the visibly disinterested look she has in nearly every scene). If the film meant to champion the older generation within the new subculture, it loses its mark—Nick and Nora are consumed by it, so much so that even Nick’s reveal at the end of the film is immediately overshadowed by the actions of one of the younger cast members. Song of the Thin Man is arguably the weakest entry in the series, however, it was an apt, bittersweet note to go out on, with Nick and Nora now settled into parenthood, so comforted by the security of their relationship that they watch the world pass them by.

Deep Valley (1947)
August 28, 2016, 1:20 pm
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Director: Jean Negulesco
3 Stars
Deep ValleyThis quasi-noir from director Jean Negulesco plays as the director’s warm-up for Johnny Belinda in the way that it details a deeply troubled, abused young girl and the men who become catalysts for her redemption. In her last film for Warner Brothers (which she was leaving bitterly, having just refused a contract extension in favor of moving onto independent projects), Ida Lupino plays the farm girl who developed a severe stutter after her father (Henry Hull) hit her mother (Fay Bainter) in the heat of an argument years prior. One afternoon, she happens upon a sweaty, shirtless chain-gang, instigating an eventual revolution that sees her creating a temporary home with an escaped convict (Dane Clark). As in Frank Borzage’s Moonrise, Clark plays his character’s vulnerabilities quite well—if he doesn’t have the screen presence of a John Garfield, it works for his doomed, pathetic character. Lupino is too strong a performer to be convincingly “saved” by Clark, but the inverse actually works quite well. There’s a terrific scene where Clark nearly decapitates Lupino after mistaking her as someone who might blow her cover. Wordlessly, Lupino slowly retreats from the scene, the drama of the event convincingly played by Lupino’s understated reaction and the calm grace of her movements—whereas other actresses might have played it as an explosion, Lupino is simultaneously horrified and disappointed as she collects her thoughts. Deep Valley feels about a half hour too long, but Ted McCord’s cinematography (McCord would shoot The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the following year) brings an expressionistic edge to the southern Gothic aesthetic, with shadows and crashes of lightning creating a horrific atmosphere in the troubled household.

Out Man Odd (1947)
August 5, 2016, 9:57 am
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Director: Carol Reed
4.5 Stars
Odd Man OutAt a pivotal moment in Odd Man Out, a painter (Robert Newton) finds the perfect subject for a portrait in the dying Johnny (James Mason), whose eyes suggest an uncanny beauty—the eyes of someone who knows that death is imminent. As cynical and grossly opportunistic as the moment is, it is an evocation of Odd Man Out‘s particular approach to impressionism, which propels the plot forward through feeling more than action. Crucially, the opening title cards inform us that the film concerns “the heart of the people” rather than the politics involved, and through that lens we can make sense of just about everything that follows. It’s a film about what it feels like to die. Even the setting itself seems to die with Johnny—the early scenes are photographed on a clear afternoon, giving way to thunderstorms when things are at their bleakest, and finally to an eery, oddly calming snow in the dead of night that forms the atmosphere for his death march. Director Carol Reed would similarly use setting to inform the personal in The Third Man, but the specificity of the poetic realism in Odd Man Out lends itself even better to the visuals. Mason, though largely off screen for much of the picture, was the most sensitive of screen monsters of the period, and as his love interest Kathleen Ryan gives a startlingly modern, understated performance—the calm slowness in which she moves her eyes to examine herself in a mirror shows a restraint that someone like Newton doesn’t show a similar patience for. If the film does not have the striking narrative appeal of something like The Third Man or even The Fallen Idol, it is one of the greatest evocations about how the night feels, where characters walk in trances as the streets seem equally threatening and serene.

Merton of the Movies (1947)
July 24, 2016, 1:19 pm
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Director: Robert Alton
2.5 Stars
Merton of the MoviesAt the time of its release in 1947, Merton of the Movies had already been brought to screen on two occasions: first in 1924; next in 1932 as the sublime, overlooked Make Me a Star. The premise is an irresistible comic tragedy, telling the story of an idealist who nearly gets chewed up and spit out by Hollywood. In this adaptation, Red Skelton is cast as the eponymous Merton—it’s easy to see why he was chosen for the role, although as such a noted comedian there is an over-reliance on gags (for the film to work, the audience cannot join the movie industry in laughing at Merton). While Make Me a Star focused more on the complicated, bittersweet victory in the end of the film, Merton of the Movies finds Merton almost immediately pleased that he finds success as a comedian, almost ignoring the humiliation he suffers altogether. It causes many problems for the drama—the suspense regarding how Merton will react when he discovers the truth is a narrative dead end, with this adaptation focusing on a finale that sees Skelton hiding from gangsters in a theater. Virginia O’Brien doesn’t have the world weariness to play the cynic she’s wrought to be, but she does show good romantic chemistry with Skelton in one knockout scene wherein she insists that he practice kisses on her.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
July 1, 2016, 8:20 pm
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Director: Charles Chaplin
5 Stars
Monsieur VerdouxThe transition that happens from The Great Dictator to Monsieur Verdoux doesn’t only reflect on the state of the man who had now found himself a public enemy, but a bleakness inherent to a culture in recovery from war. In the previous film’s final moments, Charlie Chaplin delivers one of the great humanist speeches, decrying a world that is in danger of being succumbed by hate. Similarly, Monsieur Verdoux involves a handful of speeches wherein Chaplin espouses his philosophy, but in this case it is the reflection of years of absolute moral confusion:“Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!” It is among the most damning criticisms of culture committed to the screen—if The Great Dictator‘s plea was urgent but also hopeful, in Monsieur Verdoux the battle has been lost. But what is so interesting about Monsieur Verdoux is not just how confrontational it is, but how much of a piece it is with Chaplin’s career. As with the little tramp, Verdoux is a man characterized as incredibly adaptable—this is the story of a man doing what it takes to survive, only whereas the tramp might find an innocent way of coming across a meal, Verdoux’s perversion of what it means to make a living is a direct reflection of the human savagery that is paramount to his cultural context.

My Favorite Brunette (1947)
June 21, 2016, 2:24 pm
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Director: Elliot Nugent
3.5 Stars
My Favorite BrunetteOne of Bob Hope’s great genre spoofs came in 1942 when he directly satirized Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps in My Favorite Blonde. The film became such a hit that it was turned into a trilogy of similarly themed spy thrillers, pairing Hope with an attractive leading lady and a supporting cast who play things deadly straight. My Favorite Brunette, the second picture in the series, doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor but it is amusing nonetheless. Hope has now found himself in a typical hardboiled detective film, with elements somewhat reminiscent of the previous year’s Notorious (including a McGuffin that involves uranium). That Dorothy Lamour is his co-star loses some of the luster of the previous film (which paired the bizarre team of Hope and Madeleine Carroll), but she provides the usual fine work as foil for the comedian. Still, the great juxtaposition is Hope himself in the context of a standard issue noir—the underrated comedian was among the most experimental artists of the 1940s in terms of playing with genre. He becomes the audience surrogate, a “fish out of water” struggling with the tropes of an all-too-familiar entertainment. If My Favorite Blonde positioned him better as an everyman (this quasi-sequel is winking even by Hope’s standards), they both show his ability to seamlessly integrate his persona within drastically different filmic universes and keeping the narrative stakes in tact.

Brighton Rock (1947)
February 15, 2016, 4:26 pm
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Director: John Boulting
3.5 Stars
Brighton RockOften referred to as “The Boy” in Graham Green’s novel Brighton Rock, Pinkie Brown is as frightening as gangsters get–ruthless, paranoid, and already resigned to his own damnation. As brought to life by Richard Attenborough in this 1947 adaptation, Pinkie is also a man who is seemingly incapable of empathy, having no sense of loyalty to his most devoted colleagues and finding the woman who loves him absolutely repulsive. Attenborough’s large, doe-eyes are perfectly suited to the task–in several scenes early on, Pinkie stands in the background as his henchmen do the talking, but Attenborough seems to be staring right at the camera with a vacant expression on his face. Depending on the scene, his face could convey this sense of detachment or a consuming panic–Pinkie is as deliberate as any gangster could be in covering his tracks, but in that regard he is also a paranoiac. Brighton Rock follows the source material very deliberately, even if it misses some of the nuances of Greene’s writing. Besides Attenborough’s iconic performance, director John Boulting and cinematographer Harry Waxman make a concerted effort to do justice to the novel’s boardwalk setting, which pays off enormously well–the opening sequence, which follows Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley) as he tries to run from Pinkie and the gang, introduces the setting and establishes Pinkie’s persistence succintly. Hale’s demise occurs in a haunted house amusement park ride that is shot with a montage of macabre, distorted masks and faces. It’s an effective means of demonstrating the material’s submersion in the dangerous underworld of Brighton, and these visual flourishes are the sort of detail that justifies the adaptation.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)
December 24, 2015, 12:17 am
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Director: Roy Del Ruth
2.5 Stars
It Happened on Fifth AvenueIt comes as no surprise that It Happened on Fifth Avenue was initially optioned for Frank Capra’s Liberty Films. Set in an empty mansion where a homeless man (Victor Moore) is squatting for the holidays, the film culminates with an inevitable sermon about where real riches are found (hint: not in dollars and cents). Yet even Capra rarely produced something so saccharine, this playing more like the toothless You Can’t Take It With You than It’s a Wonderful Life. Overlong and overwrought, the film indulges the occasional lightweight charms–a tangential setpiece involving a waiter and a wobbly table is an effectively performed slapstick routine–but it doesn’t quite earn its sentimentality. As the young couple, Gale Storm and Don DeFore are miscast. When DeFore helps Storm wield a shotgun and its accidental blast results in ecstasy, one wishes the scene involved actors more inclined to play up the sexuality of the situation. Ann Harding and Charles Ruggles, on the other hand, bring a satisfying heft and understatement to their respective roles–one sequence involves them witnessing a conversation about what happens to failed marriages, and they are both required to play out the drama of regret and self-loathing using only small gestures and facial ticks. In the end, however, director Roy Del Ruth doesn’t bring any sense of urgency to the screwball antics, and as such the inherent humor of the situation, much like the relationship between the young couple, just kind of lays there until it fizzles out.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
November 16, 2015, 8:03 pm
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Director: Robert Montgomery
4 Stars
Ride the Pink HorseActor-turned-director Robert Montgomery released Ride the Pink Horse in the same year as his highly experimental point of view noir Lady in the Lake. This later film shows a similar interest in fairly radical filmic techniques, albeit with a more refined taste. The opening shot at a bus station plays out in a long, unbroken take, as cinematographer Russell Metty meticulously follows each of Lucky Gagin’s (Montgomery) gestures in the process of hiding a significant piece of evidence. While Montgomery is eager to allow audiences in on every little movement in this opening scene, he later plays games with perspective, creating a relationship between what the audience does and does not see. Gagin is often filmed from behind as a shadow while the villains appear fully lit and facing toward the camera, and in one remarkable scene only glimpses of violence are witnessed as children pass by on a carousel. The cumulative effect of said techniques creates a remarkably specific sense of tone–the film forgoes the plot mechanics of a typical noir structure for something more ambling, dreamy. Late in the film, a concussed Gagin begins his whole journey over again, seeming to sleepwalk through the steps that lead him to the man he wishes to blackmail (Fred Clark). This repetition doesn’t serve so much as a contrast to what came before, but as a physical manifestation of the burrowed sense of catatonia.

Ivy (1947)
September 2, 2015, 1:21 pm
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Director: Sam Wood
3.5 Stars
Ivy“Pity the men in her life!”, reads the poster for this 1947 Edwardian noir which casts Joan Fontaine as a woman who puts three men through hell as a result of her selfish ambitions. She has grown tired of her husband (Richard Ney) now that he has run through his money, she is harassed by her obsessive ex-lover (Patric Knowles), and there’s a promise of extravagance with the appearance of a wealthy suitor (Herbert Marshall). Naturally, she soon plots to make herself a widow. Fontaine’s performance has been heralded as a fatale, but actually she’s too smart an actress to simply play Ivy as an icy villain. She poisons her husband with great panic instead of ruthlessness. It’s a sympathetic performance, which perhaps makes the murder all the more vile–she fully understands the ramifications of her actions. Cinematographer Russell Metty and production designer William Cameron Menzies render the world of Ivy an atmospheric, dreamy one. The clouds are exaggerated and unusually low, the lights from fireworks become apocalyptic explosions. This nightmarish quality is accentuated further by a haunting tune that plays at the mere suggestion of poison, taunting Ivy with her guilt. If the picture falters in its tedious final act, Ivy is visually striking throughout, with Fontaine looking as beautiful as ever and giving one of her most challenging performances.