For Reel

Hamlet (1948)
August 13, 2017, 1:14 pm
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Director: Laurence Olivier
3.5 Stars
HamletAlthough Laurence Olivier is often regarded as having brought Shakespeare’s works to the screen in a manner that does justice to the text, his Hamlet oddly sees him belligerently pitted against the bard’s most studied work. If it doesn’t discredit the material, it has its liberties with it. In casting himself as the eponymous heir, Olvier essentially rewrought the character before even muttering a line—at forty, he is twice the age of the character in the text. As a result, Olivier quiets down on Hamlet’s desperation and fear and instead seems merely dour. The “to be or not to be” soliloquy is not delivered out of a place of terror, but plays as a woebegone fit of public melodrama. Similarly, the Oedipal interpretation Olivier brings to the material is interesting in the moment but really seems to mute the drama. If Hamlet is a drama of paranoia, fear, and is enlivened through the excruciating dragging out of the inevitable, Olivier plays it oddly cool. There are some exceptions—the Yorick scene shows Olivier find the humor in the scene’s inherent nihilism—but one pines for some of the vulnerability brought to King Lear forty years later. Despite the questions one might have regarding performance, however, the film looks spectacular, and succeeds as a sort of Wellesian imitation. Ophelia’s downfall is wonderfully imagined, from her glassy-eyed wandering through the impossibly open, bare halls, to her floating down the river and seeming to vanish into thin air. The haunting, poetic dramatization of the scenes and Jean Simmons’ performance (she completely steals the film) increase one’s understanding and appreciation of the character as written.

Hollow Triumph (1948)
September 3, 2016, 4:21 pm
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Director: Steve Sekely
3.5 Stars
Hollow TriumphWorking to expand on his image from Victor Laszlo and the roles from the pictures he did with Bette Davis, Paul Henreid turned to production with this 1948 noir from Eagle Lion Films. In the film he plays not one, but two fairly unsympathetic characters—most importantly John Muller, a recently released prisoner who finds himself on the run from mobsters. As in Dark Passage, the film uses the face as a means of investigating the theme of identity. Muller is noted as having been smart and respectable in his early life, even having some success as a psychologist… albeit without a license. In adapting the identity of Dr. Bartok, he has the potential to roleplay a life that could have been, including a romantic affair with a secretary (Joan Bennett) who worships him. But as with the most fatalistic of noirs, the picture’s finale involves a few ironic twists of fate that seem to argue that Muller was destined for his particular tragedy all along. Henreid is compelling in the dual role, but the film’s real pleasures come in the cinematography by John Alton, which provides a tour of many Los Angeles locations (including an exciting showdown at Angels Flight).

A Southern Yankee (1948)
July 24, 2016, 1:24 pm
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Director: Edward Sedgwick
3.5 Stars
A Southern YankeeAlthough the Civil War setting and the influence of Buster Keaton has led some to wrongfully assume that A Southern Yankee is a remake of The General, it wisely steers clear of all but the most surface similarities. When Red Skelton is chased by an enormous circular lawnmower, it feels like a loving homage more than a ripoff—not just because it was conceived of by the comic veterans Keaton and director Edward Sedgwick, but because the execution in Skelton’s performance feels different. The film’s screenplay, like Skelton’s best pictures, does a terrific job in consistently elevating the comedic stakes of the material. When Skelton is tasked with the job of carrying both a real map and a planted one, it is inevitable that the two will be mixed up. But just how many times they get confused is the stroke of genius—it’s the Murphy’s law philosophy to comedy, which keeps Skelton’s character in constant danger and maintains the high levels of tension as the laughs as temporary reliefs. Arlene Dahl is stunning as the love interest, riding the line between polite Southern belle and bonafide sexpot, and Brian Donlevy serves the material well by playing his villain completely straight.

Macbeth (1948)
July 9, 2016, 8:59 pm
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Director: Orson Welles
3.5 Stars
MacbethOrson Welles’ hastily filmed and micro-budgeted adaptation of Macbeth for Republic Pictures will likely insult those deeply attached to the Bard’s language—many of the actors perform their lines too hurriedly and insecurely, damaged further by an audio track that leaves much to be desired (having been recorded after the fact in a studio). Much of it is simply unintelligible. And yet, this adaptation is nonetheless a remarkable piece of expressionism, with Welles focusing on atmosphere more than the specifics of the story—the entire film feels claustrophobic and crushing, the prophecy-imposed dread manifesting in a kingdom that is demonstrated through small pieces of rubble and destroyed buildings. The way that Welles dramatizes the delirium through the sparse sets and exaggerations in scale has the feel of a fever dream. One could imagine that Akira Kurosawa was inspired by the resulting images when he adapted the material into Throne of Blood, which similarly uses extraordinarily high contrast black-and-white cinematography and a surreal atmosphere characterized by smoke and intricate lighting. If one is unfamiliar with the source material, this is a great demonstration of how the play feels more than the content of the soliloquies.

Return of the Bad Men (1948)
July 9, 2016, 2:25 pm
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Director: Ray Enright
2.5 Stars
Return of the Bad MenAfter having had success in casting Randolph Scott as the lawman surrounded by countless famed gunslingers in Badman’s Territory, RKO repeated the formula only two years later with Return of the Bad Men. Despite the title, it is a spiritual sequel at best—George “Gabby” Hayes reappears here in a completely different role—and this time the narrative is a typical “land rush” scenario that sees a plot of Oklahoma Territory becoming a part of the United States and the nefarious characters that threaten it. Very few films can’t be improved with the appearance of Robert Ryan, who appears as a purely corrupt version of the Sundance Kid, who assaults, murders, and cowers in fear when challenged. What made the first film such a compelling minor western was how it dealt with the morality of the characters—although Scott was undeniably good, he was surprisingly accepting of the life of an outlaw. In this film, however, the sense of good and evil is far more black and white, with Scott attempting to “save” an attractive young outlaw played by Anne Jeffreys by telling her to get a job or start a family. The toothless plot coupled with the bland characterizations make Return of the Bad Men play as a disappointment considering the talents involved, although the final shootout is exceptionally well photographed.

Quartet (1948)
June 16, 2016, 7:09 pm
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Director(s): Ken Annakin, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree & Ralph Smart
4 Stars
QuartetAnthology films have a certain irresistibly to them but are very rarely satisfying as a whole. More often than not, critics talk about these films by distinguishing between the chapters—it is common to select favorites and wholly dismiss others. Quartet is an unusually great example of the genre in that its stories build upon each other, so much so that the final chapter is graced with the cumulative power of everything that’s come before. If the four stories that comprise the film are distinct from one another, they nonetheless are unified by a certain attitude towards relationships. The last two of these stories are based on shorts from W. Somerset Maugham’s collection Creatures of Circumstance, which is a perfectly apt title to describe the often beset upon characters who strive to get by, prone to selfishness on their way to happiness. Maugham’s great masterpiece The Moon and Sixpence considered the problem of the pursuit of freedom when burdened by social responsibilities, and so too do these four stories involve characters butting heads for no particular reason other than their way of life contradicts with the people around them. In “The Colonel’s Lady”, which ends the film, Cecil Parker plays a man who is brought to shame when he realizes that he’s been poor to the woman who still desperately loves and pines for him. That the film doesn’t end in an easy reconciliation is a moment of unusual genus—there is no solution that redeems all that has come before, rather it becomes clear that there were many wasted years due to a failure of communication.

Easter Parade (1948)
June 7, 2016, 12:38 pm
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Director: Charles Walters
3 Stars
Easter ParadeFred Astaire was coaxed out of retirement to replace the injured Gene Kelly in Easter Parade, the well-remembered MGM musical known as being the single collaboration between Astaire and Judy Garland. Unfortunately, the two have very little chemistry on screen—if some of their interactions are amusing (Astaire giving Garland dance lessons produces some laughs, including a riff on Ginger Rogers’ feather dress from Top Hat), they play as two individual stars battling for attention rather than as a cohesive unit. Regardless, Easter Parade earns some good will in its most satisfying moments, including Astaire’s drum solo number early on and Ann Miller’s show-stopping “Shakin’ the Blues Away” (which coasts on Miller’s talent while director Charles Walters inappropriately treats the number as a throwaway rehearsal). Irving Berlin’s score is solid, but the musical numbers have very little to do with the narrative at the core of the picture—consider as an alternative how the music played an emotional role in the Astaire and Rogers musicals. The picture is best summed up by a late gimmick in which Astaire dances in slow motion as the cast in the background moves at normal speed. Visually interesting as it may be, it simply doesn’t “get” what makes Astaire so impressive. He doesn’t need green screen gimmicks, he just needs to dance. Similarly, here’s a film that should have everything going for it, only there is no guiding hand to bring all of the disparate elements together.

The Pirate (1948)
May 8, 2016, 10:06 pm
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Director: Vincente Minnelli
4 Stars
The PirateThat The Pirate plays as so desperate and unhinged might have something to do with the fact that its production was troubled with Judy Garland’s ongoing prescription drug addition and her failing relationship with director Vincente Minnelli. But it is also the terrific combination of a flamboyant plot and Gene Kelly’s apparent need to overcompensate—with his showboating and ceaseless flirtation, Kelly gets to play Serafin as something akin to a role that Douglas Fairbanks might have played. It’s both suggestion and even explicit luridness, as with the early “Nina” number that finds Kelly making love with every woman in sight. The film works best when Serafin is backed into a corner by the sexually frustrated Manuela (Judy Garland), whose rambunctious “Mack the Black” has a wild vivacity that one wouldn’t normally associate with Garland (at least not in its sexuality). A later scene wherein Manuela hurls everything she can get her hands on at Serafin goes on a little too long, but summarizes the film’s pleasures as an oddity—it is a spectacle with flashes of truly magnificent brilliance, heightened by the tangible sensation that it can all come crumbling apart at any moment.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
January 31, 2016, 11:25 pm
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Director: John Huston
5 Stars
The Treasure of the Sierra MadreArticulating the experience of watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a faulty endeavor, so intoxicating it is as a piece of narrative fiction that it all but eschews the need for critical analysis. Many who write about the film discuss it in similar terms. In his glowing review for The Nation, James Agee praised John Huston as, along with Charlie Chaplin, the most talented man working in American film, insisting that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a towering achievement that rises to the level of “folk art.” What Agee gets at, and what the film’s legacy insists, is that Huston was remarkably gifted at making films that have near-universal appeal due to his gifts as a storyteller and, specifically, his insistence on character. The action scenes all function as a means of advancing certain character traits–when the three prospectors (Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Tim Holt) plot to kill a man that has come across their enterprise, the scene works not only as a means of creating suspense, but as a cataloging of the mental states of the characters. In fact, Huston throughout creates a delicate balance between how much is revealed and how much is temporarily obscured as it relates to the characters’ motivations, necessitating these moments wherein action determines how deteriorated their morality has become. The final act of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre exists as sublime poetry, and those who have seen the film will know that the best way to respond to any bad turn of fate is simply to laugh, having been made newly aware of their cosmic insignificance.

Corridor of Mirrors (1948)
August 21, 2015, 2:27 pm
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Director: Terence Young
4 Stars
Corridor of MirrorsIn a telling exchange from Corridor of Mirrors, a nostalgic artist (Eric Portman) promotes the merits of living in the past, expounding that, “We don’t know whether the future will be good or bad, but we gamble on it. Well, I’ve given up gambling. I prefer the certainty.” Set just before the war, this adaptation of Christopher Massie’s novel (previously reworked by Ayn Rand as the Jennifer Jones vehicle Love Letters) suggests the precariousness of sentimentality in a time when the world was undergoing vast, irrevocable changes. In the film, Paul Mangin’s (Portman) fixation on the past leads him to begin dressing a lounge singer (Edana Romney) to more closely resemble one of the paintings in his well-preserved Venetian mansion. The makeover fetish narrative has led many critics to cite the film as a potential inspiration for Vertigo, but perhaps the better Hitchcock comparison is Rebecca (there’s even a Mrs. Danvers stand-in with a creepy housekeeper played by Barbara Mullen). Future Bond director Terence Young never made another film quite like this one, which plays like a British response to the Poetic Realists (a comparison further encouraged by the score by La Belle et la Bête composer Georges Auric) by way of Daphne du Maurier. At the time of its release, the New York Times scoffed at Corridor of Mirrors, describing it as, “melodramatic” and “preposterous”. It is just that, and gloriously so!