For Reel

Side Street (1950)
September 3, 2016, 4:24 pm
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Director: Anthony Mann
4 Stars
Side StreetThe early-goings of Side Street recall The Naked City in the way the narration discusses a big city and the people within—New York City is described as an architectural jungle where a murder is committed every day. Over shots of a crowd, it is pondered who will be the victim, and who will be the murderer this time. Character introductions don’t get much bleaker—although audiences are immediately sympathetic to postal worker Joe Norson (Farley Granger), it comes with the knowledge that Norson is simply a small piece in an enormous world that is utterly indifferent to his struggles. In the finale, Norson will be pursued through the streets of Lower Manhattan as they have never been seen before—the streets are so vacant that it seems apocalyptic, giving even more power and weight to the enormous skyscrapers that loom over the action. As with his films with Hitchcock, Granger shows a terrific ability to convey the panic and guilt of an unlikely criminal whose biggest flaw is his moral streak, and Cathy O’Donnell is luminous as the angelic woman he risks it all for. Aside from the remarkable location photography, the great achievement of Side Street is how well director Anthony Mann evokes a descent into darkness. By the climax, the plot becomes increasingly convoluted as more shady figures and crimes get involved in the material, and Mann and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg imagine many of the later scenes with a level of expressionism that is largely absent from the early, documentary-like prologue. Even the aforementioned chase through the city plays as abstract in the way it uses the geometric shapes of the towers to create a sense of entrapment, and Mann’s contrast between overhead shots and low-angle views from the street emphasize the sheer horror of being at the mercy of a world of impossible scale.

Fancy Pants (1950)
August 21, 2016, 12:33 pm
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Director: George Marshall
2 Stars
Fancy PantsBob Hope and Lucille Ball teamed for the second time in this loose adaptation of the Leo McCarey classic Ruggles of Red Gap, with Hope attempting to fill the sizable shoes of Charles Laughton. That Hope is so unconvincing as an English butler is wrought into the script—he’s a lousy American actor who only barely passes as one! Director George Marshall had worked with Hope on one of his most successful pictures in The Ghost Breakers, but here the storytelling is shallow and inept. If it hits the notes of a traditional romantic comedy involving a confused identity, Marshall’s flat direction and the rushed script gives the film no sense of an emotional trajectory, much less a suspense in the growing infatuation between the unlikely couple. No one involved seems inspired to use the drawing room comedy as the canvas for a Hope genre subversion, and the western elements that become introduced late in the picture are tangential at best. While viewers going into a Hope picture are not necessarily expecting emotional resonance, one would have liked to see this re-imagining carry over a fraction of the sensitivity of its predecessor, which is among the most heartfelt dramas of the 1930s.

The Next Voice You Hear… (1950)
August 9, 2016, 5:22 pm
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Director: William A. Wellman
4 Stars
The Next Voice You Hear...The Next Voice You Hear… is a nicely condensed transitional film in the popular depictions of American domesticity. The bulk of the film involves a typical struggling family that one might see in a post-war drama—the father (James Whitmore) is intimidating to both wife (Nancy Davis) and son (Gary Gray), the wife is loving but beaten-down and disenchanted by her marriage, and the son struggles to navigate the waters of a crumbling household. Director William A. Wellman, responsible for some of the grittiest pictures of the 1930s in particular, is keen on representing the realism of the details—in one scene, a son mimics his dad’s anger issues to the bemusement of the mother. When the family’s routine is shocked by a voice announcing itself as God appearing on the radio, they spend days in denial before sinking into self-loathing, shame, and fear. If this is the end of the days, they think, what do we have to show for it? And how can we justify the ways that we live? If the film’s ultimate statement of purpose is a hugely moralizing sermon about loving thy neighbor, the picture is redeemed by its messiness—only in the very final moments does the film begin to wear its message thickly, instead favoring the confusion of the phenomenon throughout. Ending with the family reunited and all problems put aside, the picture seems to welcome in the classic image of Americana that would be reinforced in the coming decade through the increasing prevalence of television, the popularity of domestic the sitcoms, and the advertising industry. And yet, as false as this image seems and as eager as the film is to perpetrate it, The Next Voice You Hear… involves the sly satire that the only thing out of the slump of an unhappy household is divine intervention.

Shadow on the Wall (1950)
August 9, 2016, 5:17 pm
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Director: Pat Jackson
2.5 Stars
Shadow on the WallThe beloved, good-humored star of the Maisie series was cast against type as a murderess in this film noir for MGM. And not only does Ann Sothern commit murder early in the film, but she spends the entirety of the rest of the film plotting the death of the key witness: a little girl (Gigi Perreau)! It’s a preposterous casting that doesn’t quite work despite Sothern’s considerable talents—although she fares well in conveying the desperation that might lead one to these sorts of actions, she’s simply too strong a screen presence to play someone so weak-willed and cowardly. Aside from Sothern’s casting, the film is of some interest due to the cinematography of Ray June, which is dynamic inasmuch as it concerns itself with both the naturalistic, flat lighting of a typical domestic noir and expressionistic plays of light when the moment calls for it (the film, after all, takes its name from the key image). The suspense doesn’t quite work due to the flat direction, miscasting, and the stilted performance from Perreau, but there is a bizarro fascination to be had in watching Sothern attempt to murder a child by poisoning her chocolate milk.

The Yellow Cab Man (1950)
July 24, 2016, 1:26 pm
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Director: Jack Donohue
4.5 Stars
The Yellow Cab ManThe Yellow Cab Man sees Red Skelton star in what plays as a proto-Jerry Lewis vehicle—rife with intricate sets, a heavy dose of surrealism, and a slapstick sensibility that becomes increasingly anarchic. In the climax, Skelton and Gloria DeHaven are on the run from conspiratorial thugs, finding refuge in a Home Show expo that includes a revolving house. As the monstrous home spins like a carousel and a parade of taxicabs come crashing through the wall to the rescue, The Yellow Cab Man becomes something sublime, offering the types of images that very few comedic visionaries had the imagination for. It is not the only foray into the extraordinary—in what plays as a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Skelton finds himself frequently hypnotized by an evil psychiatrist played by Walter Slezak. In one of the resulting hallucinations, Slezak dons an absurd walrus costume that would put him at home in the ill-fated 1933 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Not all of the gags work, but they’re all presented with the same loving attention to detail. A hospitalized Skelton makes the pun that the film has, “the best cast he’s ever been in!” prompting the credits written in sharpie all over his bandages. Frequent Keaton collaborator Edward Sedgwick is again credited as a consultant on the film, and fittingly the comedy plays as something unlike anything going in Hollywood at the time (that is, until Frank Tashlin hit the ground running not long after).

Summer Stock (1950)
June 16, 2016, 7:20 pm
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Director: Charles Walters
4.5 Stars
Summer StockSummer Stock was the first film that Judy Garland made after returning from a suspension that was the result of her firing from Annie Get Your Gun and a lengthy stay in hospital to treat her drug dependency. As is common of her films in this period, one can scarcely get the sense that there’s anything wrong—equally due to the fact that Garland, even at her healthiest, was an enormously vulnerable performer, and that MGM was a studio that let nary a crack in the wallpaper show. It is among her finest musicals during this stretch, serving as a love letter to theater and musicals themselves. The best scene of the picture involves Gene Kelly using a creak in a floorboard and a discarded newspaper for a dance. Beyond Kelly’s physical achievement, it is crucial that the scene is preceded by Garland’s character chastising him for his domineering attitude as a stage director. He is put in his place and, rather than fighting the accusations, simply takes a moment to remember exactly what it is that he appreciates about his craft. To watch the scene is to watch Kelly’s love of dance reborn—when his art form is brought back to basics, his withdrawn demeanor has no choice but to give way to sheer ecstasy. Only in the final act does Summer Stock fall short—in truth, the final show that the group puts on simply isn’t all that good—but even then about half of the numbers land (including the famed “Get Happy” and the delightful but questionably staged “You Wonderful You”).

The Second Face (1950)
April 17, 2016, 3:44 pm
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Director: Jack Bernhard
2.5 Stars
The Second FaceThe career of Ella Raines has found a renewed interest in recent years. When used well (as in a noir like Phantom Lady), her striking, icy beauty compliments a sense of the underworld—she’s not a wholesome screen presence, rather one who suggests something urban and dangerous. The Second Face, then, is unusual in several ways. First of all, it casts the actress in a rare leading role, but it also demands that she play fairly meek and restrained, a well-to-do woman who has difficulty finding her place within the world. Her transformation in the flashback scenes is striking—sporting a fake nose and greasy, tightly pulled back hair, Raines plays the role without any sense of vanity, even if an actress like Joan Crawford might have better externalized the struggle in a compelling way. And yet, if The Second Face has value for those interested in Raines’ career, it is otherwise a noble failure, suited with a sometimes laughably overwrought script that belabors its single point repeatedly. Each encounter is punctuated by a discussion about how the ugliness (or, later, the beauty) of the heroine has influenced the action, leaving nothing to the viewer’s imagination. If one is looking for a more subtle, empathetic look about being disadvantaged in a culture that prides beauty above almost all else, try The Enchanted Cottage.

Stage Fright (1950)
February 3, 2016, 7:21 pm
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
3 Stars
Stage FrightThe theme of deception in Hitchcock is explored in all of this films, both as a stamp of his directorial authorship and as an element that exists within the narrative. Role-playing, in particular, crops up often–Alicia posing as Sebastian’s lover in Notorious, Scottie’s obsession with recapturing the past in Vertigo, the strange case of Norma Bates. If Stage Fright has not maintained the reputation of the director’s greatest work, it is nonetheless an indispensable artifact in the analysis of Hitchcock in that the theme of deceit is foregrounded with an impertinent cheekiness, amounting to what might be the purest example of Hitchcock’s obsession with the fraudulence of cinema. Nearly every element in the film involves, if not direct role-playing (a huge element in the picture), the suggestion of artifice. As the woman who makes performance her occupation, Marlene Dietrich’s Charlotte Inwood is perhaps the most forthright character in the picture in that she’s the only one who’ll cop to her disguises. Hitchcock requested that Dietrich play to type, which distinguishes her completely from any female character in a Hitchock film. Importantly, the Dietrich persona is one which carries a certain level of fraudulence in that her image is shaped entirely by lighting and costuming, making her a brilliant fit for the material. If Stage Fright is fascinating in these respects (its reputation is also attributed to the gimmick of an unreliable flashback, the most “Hitchcock” of narrative games), it is not quite as sensually pleasurable as his best–the performances leave much to be desired, and one wishes that he met this obsession with duplicity with a more distinguished script.

Night and the City (1950)
October 10, 2015, 12:54 pm
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Director: Jules Dassin
4.5 Stars
Night and the CityAlthough Jules Dassin wouldn’t go on the Hollywood blacklist until 1950, he and Twentieth Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck knew it to be an inevitability before Night and the City had been completed. The resulting film is suitably defined by backstabbing, betrayals, and the destructive effects of money and the pursuit of bettering one’s social standing. This hellish, expressionistic vision of London is far removed from Dassin’s own urban imaginings in The Naked City and Thieves’ Highway, which (especially in the former) treated cities as organized and geometric, undoubtedly defined by crime but without the desperation and nightmarish quality of this later film. As scam artist Harry Fabian, Richard Widmark is brilliantly cast. He giggles, sweats profusely, and tightens his lips to bear his bulging white teeth–the image of a desperate would-be promoter, but also a man slowly succumbing to a fatal bear hug. Cinematographer Max Greene is just as adept at conveying the paranoiac atmosphere in close-ups as he is in scenes that convey the shadowed alleys and hellish attractions of London after dark. Widmark often faces the camera in tight close-ups–the perfect scale to acknowledge every bead of sweat on his exhausted head–and his image is frequently surrounded with a rogues’ gallery of watchful eyes in the background. These shots are rendered in shallow focus, creating a sense of claustrophobia by making it seem as though the characters are stacked right on top of each other.

Where Danger Lives (1950)
July 26, 2015, 3:07 pm
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Director: John Farrow
4.5 Stars
Where Danger LivesThe protagonist played by Robert Mitchum in Where Danger Lives isn’t the typical detective or drifter that one might expect of a film noir, but rather a successful doctor who has a particular gift in dealing with children. In the opening scene, he’s reading a bedtime story to a girl in an iron lung. As is expected of the genre, however, he will soon be taken on a downward spiral, led to hell by a woman that he should have never fallen in love with in the first place (Faith Domergue). Worse than the common, devious femme fatale, Domergue plays a woman who is certifiably insane. Charles Bennett penned the screenplay, a frequent collaborator with Hitchcock who contributes a number of amusing, surreal tangents on the couple’s road trip to Mexico. In one scene, Mitchum and Domergue find themselves captives in a small town based on the simple fact that they aren’t bearded. But what really makes Where Danger Lives special is the conceit that Mitchum spends almost the entirety of the picture concussed, trudging through the action half-asleep and disoriented. It’s a perfect capitalization on the nightmarish quality of the genre, and Mitchum is just the man to give a sleepy, doomed performance.