For Reel

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
January 16, 2017, 8:55 pm
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Director: Elia Kazan
3 Stars
a-streetcar-named-desireAlthough the rationality of method acting is that it brings both performer and audience closer to “truth”, it would be an error to mistake the grit, sweat, and raw power of A Streetcar Named Desire as aspiring for any semblance of realism. Director Elia Kazan’s theatricalities are often the entry-point into his best work. Here, despite Marlon Brando’s performance, it is the claustrophobic sensationalizing of the setting that defines the tone of the piece—it is a world of such essential unreality that it transcends the grounded issues of class envy and primal sexuality. Kazan’s artistic contradictions (striving for both style and authenticity) is the excuse for the wide array of performances in the film. If Vivien Leigh’s performance as Blanche is justifiably different than her co-stars from a narrative perspective, her theatricality creates a disconnect when matched with Kim Hunter’s understated, quiet performance as Stella. As a result of competing interests, the film is emotionally incomprehensible throughout, whereas the similarly manic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? renders the domestic theatrical in a convincing way because there is more unity in each of the project’s elements. Regardless, Streetcar can not be overlooked if only because of the unusual mood it establishes in the Kowalski home, and on the level of sheer camp there is enjoyment to be had in ways sexuality and toxicity are hardly discernible.

Texas Carnival (1951)
July 28, 2016, 5:41 pm
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Director: Charles Walters
2.5 Stars
Texas CarnivalTexas Carnival comes near the end of Esther Williams’ short-lived film career (she would make only five more films after this one) and serves as a reunion between her and her first leading man in Red Skelton. As is typical of both of their work at MGM, the film is a breezy, crowd-pleasing entertainment—that it doesn’t have the budget of some of Williams’ bigger pictures diminishes some of the spectacle, however the presence of Ann Miller and a massive xylophone is arguably on par as a distraction. Williams and Skelton play a carnival duo who become mistaken for a rich cattle baron and his sister. It’s a skeleton of a plot and barely registers, moreso playing as a loosely-stitched together series of set pieces, inoffensive but far from either of the stars’ best work. The knockout sequence comes when Williams appears in Howard Keel’s “wet dream”—a phosphorescent Williams comes floating into his bedroom and swims around the furniture, seducing him in a ghostly sort of water dance. That the scene looks like something from Blithe Spirit adds a terrific sense of mystery to the sensuality, and moreover positions it as one of the great surreal moments in a Williams vehicle. The climax involves a chuckwagon race that must have done Buster Keaton proud—Skelton’s wagon completely falls apart as he races across the desert, ultimately leaving him on a flimsy frame and wheels. Nothing registers except for the three key setpieces (Miller’s number, Williams’ dance, and the climax), but the film is a relatively inoffensive way to kill an hour.

Excuse My Dust (1951)
July 28, 2016, 5:38 pm
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Director: Roy Rowland
2.5 Stars
Excuse My DustRed Skelton had already been transitioning into television by the time Excuse My Dust was released and the film makes a good argument why that might have been a medium better suited to his talents. That’s not to say that he gives a poor performance in Excuse My Dust—he’s perfectly serviceable as the predictably overlooked eccentric—but it ignores most of his comic talents. Whereas The Yellow Cab Man treated Skelton as a first-rate, progressive comedian, using innovative sets and glimpses of surrealism to aid the comedy, this nostalgic bore affords him very few memorable lines. Fortunately, the talented Sally Forrest is on hand as the love interest, and in one set piece she delivers a particularly erotic dance brilliantly choreographed by Hermes Pan (set during another man’s fantasy in which he imagines a future in which women’s clothes weight less). Good as Forrest is, however, she’s nearly overshadowed by the delightful Monica Lewis. If her numbers are less memorable, her enthusiasm and charisma as a performer is outstanding, contrasting with Forrest’s heroine as the more risque, modern woman. Buster Keaton was again on hand to help Skelton with some of the comedic scenes, but other than a moderately amusing race at the end of the picture the laughs are few and far between.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)
May 10, 2016, 7:02 pm
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Director(s): Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
3 Stars
Alice in WonderlandAlice in Wonderland offers almost none of what one would expect of a classical Disney film. Among other things, there is a lack of a firmly sympathetic protagonist (it would be impossible for an audience to identify with Alice as her offhand acceptance of her surroundings betrays one’s sense of wonder), a hugely impressionistic design scheme, and a structure that plays more like a “package” film than it does a narrative. For these reasons, it is not surprising that Walt Disney disowned the film, literally apologizing for what Lewis Carroll’s intricate work had turned into. And yet, if Alice in Wonderland is certainly among the most exhausting of the studio’s efforts, its very relentlessness does make for some oddball interest. That the film’s cult status is tied very much to drug culture feels almost inevitable—not only does the picture deal with the surreal, but it makes no attempt to ground the viewer into the world of the film. If other Disney entertainments wash over audiences with a sense of comfort, Alice in Wonderland has a more dizzying effect, alternating between grating (the Mad Hatter is as obnoxious as it gets) and slightly horrific (the Cheshire Cat still plays as a disturbing menace).

Nobody’s Children (1951)
February 15, 2016, 2:37 pm
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Director: Raffaello Matarazzo
3.5 Stars
Nobody's ChildrenAlthough Raffaello Matarazzo had been all but forgotten by the time the Criterion Collection released a quartet of his post-war melodramas in 2011, in his day he found enormous success with Italian audiences, even out-performing legendary neorealist filmmakers like Rossellini and De Sica. It is somewhat simplistic to say that his films provided an alternative to the new push towards neorealism–although his films often utilized a traditional melodramatic sensibility, he set them in real, naturalistic environments. Look no further than the massive rock quarry in Nobody’s Children, which in its eminent threat is reflective of the way that the plot gives way to radical plot twists and turns of fate. While there is enough plot in the picture for twenty, the tropes are all familiar. There’s a pair of lovers, the forces who try to keep them apart, and finally the bastard child who will come to learn of his true parentage. Matarazzo shifts through these dynamics accessibly, sensationalizing the material to the extreme in sequences involving a roaring fire and an avalanche. If the soap-operatic quality of the picture is the root of its pleasure, the landscapes (including the aforementioned quarry and long, lonely village roads) keep it earthbound. The two sensibilities seem at odds with each other, but it is these very incongruities that make it memorable.

The River (1951)
January 13, 2016, 10:27 pm
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Director: Jean Renoir
3.5 Stars
The RiverOften called the masterpiece of director Jean Renoir’s post-war period, The River is a film of tremendous empathy, full of wisdom and a gentleness the recalls a great adolescent novel. It is also erred by the failing performances, which tend to range from passable to bad–the picture has seductive rhythms, but on a scene-by-scene basis, much of the drama that plays out falls flat. Most problematic is Thomas E. Breen as Captain John, which is the crucial role in that should enhance our understanding of the three women who vie for his affection. As the forgotten man archetype–he recently lost a leg in what we understand to be World War II–Breen shows a convincing awkwardness and excitability regarding the attention he gets, but doesn’t carry the weight of his own burdens. At the end of the film, he tells Harriet (Patricia Walters) that as humans we are met with situations that will either kill us a little bit or spur a rebirth. It’s a touching moment of compassion, one of many that one wishes were delivered by a more complete actor.  Regardless, Renoir’s vision of India was radical for the time (albeit still problematized by colonialist nostalgia) in that instead of suggesting a pronounced danger in the exotic, he embraces the Hindu religion by incorporating themes of renewal and rebirth, envisioning the Ganges River as a metaphor for the steady, insuppressible flow of life. Claude Renoir’s cinematography revels in the murky waters and clay bricks of the setting as much as he romanticizes traditional Indian celebrations–it is a remarkable visual achievement, showing a dynamism in its vision and serving as a counterpoint to Black Narcissus’ beautiful artifice.

Cause for Alarm! (1951)
July 26, 2015, 3:17 pm
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Director: Tay Garnett
3.5 Stars
Cause for Alarm!Towards the end of Loretta Young’s long career in film (she would soon be transitioning to roles on television), she starred in this small-scale thriller that displaces film noir elements from the expected urban setting into an idealized vision of suburbia. She plays a woman who is oblivious to the fact that her invalid husband (Barry Sullivan) has slowly been going mad, and in her absence he’s been theorizing that she and an old army friend (Bruce Cowling) are plotting to kill him. Intercepting a letter that would damn her becomes the central focus of the plot, and as with the best work of Hitchcock the premise turns something completely ordinary into the object of tension and dread. Similarly, maintaining a performance as a happy housewife is the concern of much of the tension, with voiceover narration discussing Young’s fear of being mistaken by her neighbors or the post office superintendent as anything but an average, well-mannered woman. Young is quite good in a slowly unraveling performance as the film progresses, and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg contributes some interesting play in the contrast between the genre and setting (there is a chilling use of simple bedroom mirrors in one particular scene).

Ace in the Hole (1951)
June 20, 2015, 1:58 pm
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Director: Billy Wilder
5 Stars
Ace in the HoleEarly in Ace in the Hole, journalist Chuck Tatum finds himself stranded in Albuquerque and makes his way to the local paper. He brags about having been fired from eleven papers, scoffs at the small-town journalist’s blunt motto of “tell the truth”, and quips that if there’s no story to be found, he’ll “bite a dog.” His villainy represents something problematic about his trade, that reporters with little sense of moral responsibility are seemingly at an advantage. But Billy Wilder isn’t focused on skewering just the media, but rather the consumers of said media. Late in the picture, the media circus is made literal by an impromptu carnival that just happens to be on the eventual gravesite of the man who has been made spectacle. If Ace in the Hole is easily Wilder’s most cynical picture, it is complicated by the issue that Tatum is a storyteller–a spin artist who knows just the right angle to hook an audience. Certainly Wilder would not have been oblivious to his complicity in telling stories for masses who are hungry for them? Cinematographer Charles Lang was one of the classical era’s greats, and here his most remarkable achievement is in the filming of the cave, which serves as the physical manifestation of Tatum’s deteriorating mental state. The cave is the home of his darkest secret, his personal hell. Even if his change of heart is delayed–in true Wilder fashion, it happens just before he is killed–the constant banging of the drill within the cave’s walls plays like a riff on “The Tell-Tale Heart”, suggesting that even the misanthropic bastard has his limits.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
December 10, 2014, 4:36 pm
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Director: Charles Crichton
4.5 Stars
The Lavender Hill MobAlec Guinness solidified his international stardom with his performance in this amusing heist comedy from director Charles Crichton. He plays a shy, unassuming bank clerk–when his character is called into question, it is reported that he’s not a fellow with much ambition and therefore is not one to worry about. Of course, the mousy clerk takes it upon himself to give himself a bonus by stealing the gold bullion he is tasked with accompanying and smuggling it to Paris. The heist occurs about halfway through the picture and much of the excitement comes in the fallout from it. There’s a tremendous sequence in which Guinness and his partner (Stanley Holloway) visit the Eiffel Tower and pursue a field trip of young girls who have mistakenly got their hands on the smuggled gold. Crichton follows the thieves running down the circular stairway of the tower in a dizzying chaos, creating the most viscerally disorienting aesthetic achievement this side of Vertigo. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is also masterful elsewhere, with dynamic high-contrast lighting and a camera that is just as interested in following telling gestures as it is in faces.

Storm Warning (1951)
November 21, 2013, 4:44 am
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Director: Stuart Heisler
4 Stars
Storm WarningWarner Brothers had the distinction of being particularly socially-conscious when compared to the other major studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Yet Storm Warning, developed as an expose of the violent crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan, is shockingly apprehensive in its failure to discuss the racial bigotry of the group. Despite its failings as a social-problem picture, however, the film is quite successful as a thriller, more akin to the gangster genre than any other. Ginger Rogers is remarkable as Marsha, the traveling model who happens to witness a murder committed by the KKK and must face the dilemma of whether or not to testify against her sister’s new husband. Her disgust–of the Klan, of her brother-in-law, of her own inability to testify–is palpable, making it one of her most self-loathing roles. Although Ginger’s best work came in the early 40s, she still had a few remarkable performances ahead of her, especially as a gun moll with a heart of gold in Tight Spot. Carl E. Guthrie’s photography is striking, having a great sense of how to capture the violent frenzy of a crowd.