For Reel

The Narrow Margin (1952)
August 28, 2016, 1:17 pm
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Director: Richard Fleischer
5 Stars
The Narrow MarginA train infested with thugs races down the tracks at sixty miles an hour. If by some miracle the heroes make it out alive, a car keeps pace on the outside to make sure the job is done. A masterpiece of claustrophobia, Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin is deservedly known as one of the greatest of all B-pictures, thanks in large part to George E. Diskant’s gritty cinematography and a memorable prosecution witness played by the sultry Marie Windsor. The plot is packed with twists and turns, with Earl Felton’s screenplay producing many memorable one-liners along the way, but the real star of The Narrow Margin is its sense of atmosphere. Each train corridor is so tight that one needs to step into a doorway to avoid bumping into another passenger—these close confines become even more of a problem with the hulking Paul Maxey stumbling his way through, serving as a roadblock at the most inopportune times. Charles McGraw’s maneuvering through the space feels like he’s navigating through a labyrinth, the walls closing behind him as danger is just around the corner. That Fleischer opts out of a musical soundtrack is a stroke of genius, with the rhythmic churning of the train’s wheels serving as the score and even better evoking the specificity of the place. It’s a masterclass in not only detailing a setting, but utilizing it as an essential character.

Talk About a Stranger (1952)
August 9, 2016, 5:26 pm
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Director: David Bradley
4 Stars
Talk About a StrangerThis unjustly overlooked B-picture calls to mind To Kill a Mockingbird and Night of the Hunter in the way that it details a dark coming-of-age story in which a boy (Billy Gray) believes that a new immigrant in town (Kurt Kaszner) has killed his dog. The sense of lost innocence is directly linked with prejudice—to be an adult, the film might argue, is to identify with the gossiping, exclusive group of adults who are too willing to allow their hatred to perpetuate itself. If the early-goings of David Bradley’s film are relatively slow (the first half of the picture intentionally sets up a mostly idyllic image of Americana in order to later show a contrast), the storytelling and the visuals get increasingly surreal and abstract, favoring high-contrast shadows and radical camera angles. The road in which Gray often runs down seems to disappear into nothingness, suggesting the immediacy and paranoia that comes along with the night. Director David Bradley uses the imagery as a reflection of the child’s psyche (his first encounter with the stranger is filmed as a horror movie, and later Kazner literally lunges out of the fog as if he were a Universal monster), complimenting the sense of subjectivity by a persistent use of over-the-shoulder point-of-view shots in which the audience is positioned behind the boy to share his view. As with Night of the Hunter, the child’s first encounter with an adult conflict is rendered as a surreal, nightmarish folktale, creating both an intrinsic terror and fascination with the messiness of adulthood.

O. Henry’s Full House (1952)

Director(s): Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Henry King & Henry Koster
2 Stars
O Henry's Full HouseWhile living in New York, William Sydney Porter (pen name O. Henry) published over 300 short stories, many of those being churned out once a week for New York World Sunday Magazine. If many critics of the time regarded his writing as too-reliant on a gimmicky late plot twist (audiences, on the other hand, ate it up), his reputation has been rehabbed significantly in the last decades, with his sense of dramatic irony recognized as involving a dry, witty cynicism regarding life on the streets. 20th Century Fox would adapt five of O. Henry’s most famed stories for this portmanteau film in 1952, capping off the quintet with the classic “The Gift of the Magi.” Despite the talented cast and directors attached to the production, no one involved seems to arrive at what makes the author interesting—stories like “The Last Leaf” and “The Gift of the Magi” become overtly-sentimental and cute, translating none of the ache of the words on the paper. Ironically, only Howard Hawks’ “The Ransom of Red Chief” arrives at a tone befitting of O. Henry’s work—the sequence was so derided that it was cut from the theatrical release. Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, as a pair of deadpan kidnappers who hold an especially dangerous child for ransom, perform the comedic shadings of a sense of existential dread that O. Henry was particular good at. If it might be a stretch to refer to O. Henry as an author of dark comedies, the ground-level realism is of paramount importance in his writing, something that this adaptation of “The Gift of the Magi”, in particular, is missing entirely.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)
March 20, 2016, 5:11 pm
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Director: Henry Koster
2.5 Stars
My Cousin RachelAlready an accomplished British thespian on stage by the early 1950s, Richard Burton made his debut in Hollywood with this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s other gothic romance novel involving a mysterious death and a cavernous mansion perched on a mountain by the seaside. He plays a neurotic who comes to be obsessed with the wife (Olivia de Havilland) of his late guardian cousin, who may or may not have poisoned him in order to claim his inheritance. If the picture attempts to revel in the ambiguity regarding Rachel’s true intentions, Burton has a stranglehold on the material, his performance so large that de Havilland’s understated work becomes an afterthought. While Hitchcock’s Rebecca played as a bonafide gothic melodrama in the best sense, My Cousin Rachel has the look and feel of the genre but little of the sense of cohesion. Director Henry Koster was a fairly indistinct director-for-hire but capable enough, however he allows Burton’s unhinged performance to carry the tone of the picture, coasting on hysterics and a ceaseless crescendo. If the ambiguity of the source material could have been an asset, the film doesn’t often enough convey the paranoia in a compelling visual sense. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s high-contrast shadows provide a satisfying atmosphere–the film’s night sequences are mostly lit by candles and LaShelle preserves the harsh lines of light on the actors’ faces and bodies–but the film is too hysterical to approach seriously, and frankly too dull to find other visceral pleasures from.

Ikiru (1952)
January 11, 2016, 11:18 pm
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Director: Akira Kurosawa
4 Stars
IkiruThe opening shot of Ikiru is an x-ray image of a gastric cancer growing in Kenji Watanabe’s (Takashi Shimura) chest, informing the audience that he has his six months to live. Shortly thereafter, Kurosawa introduces the routine of Watanabe’s office, where a handful of public servants busily work away at nothing at all. It is clear in this contrast that the tragedy of Ikiru is not Watanabe’s impending demise, but that the life behind him has been wasted. Unlike the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa’s sentimental vision doesn’t involve an oppressive sense of “duty” or a need to yield to tradition. Watanabe both neglects his work and his family after the news has come to him, understanding that both have been failures and that he’ll need to seek fulfillment elsewhere. This first act, showing Watanabe’s depression and his failed attempts to get out of it, are aided both by Shimura’s beautifully pathetic performance as well as Kurosawa’s innovative editing techniques that compound past and present in a montage of regret and loss. The second act involves a lengthy wake wherein Watanabe’s co-workers speculate what happened to Watanabe in his final days, and why exactly he was found dead on a park swing. If Kurosawa’s film is undoubtedly sentimental, it does pack some bite in that the men who come to drunkenly empathize with Watanabe are up to the same old routines shortly after his death. The great irony of the film is that it teaches us to live, only most of us are stubborn enough that we’ll continue to act as though we have all the time in the world until we know we don’t anymore.

The White Sheik (1952)
December 4, 2015, 9:14 pm
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Director: Federico Fellini
3.5 Stars
The White SheikIn his first solo feature as a director, Federico Fellini would begin to explore the ever-shifting, sometimes imperceptible divide between illusion and reality. The White Sheik concerns a woman (Brunella Bovo) with an obsession with fumetti–a popular trend in Italy at the time in which romantic stories where presented as serialized photographed comic strips. When her honeymoon takes her to Rome, she abandons her husband (Leopoldo Trieste) to search for the eponymous “White Sheik” (Alberto Sordi), a Valentino-like figure who is not quite the charismatic enchanter he appears to be on the page. The great irony is that Fellini uses this model of fantasy to skewer the notion of marriage. While the ending unites the lovers once again, the husband carries on his bourgeois tourist desires and she now dubs him the “White Sheik” as a means of carrying out her unbroken fantasy. That the film cuts between the two lovers for comic effect–cuts often link together similar thoughts to achieve a certain harmony–ensures that neither character looks more the fool by the end of the picture. Fellini’s penchant for slapstick is apparent in Trieste’s performance, which revels in his comically saucer-eyed face as he tries to come up with excuses for his wife’s disappearances, as well as the campy, circus-like extravaganza of the fumetti photoshoot.

Invitation (1952)
July 29, 2015, 12:37 pm
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Director: Gottfried Reinhardt
3.5 Stars
InvitationAs Invitation begins, Paul Osborn’s screenplay introduces a happy young woman (Dorothy McGuire) who seems perfectly content in a loving marriage with her husband (Van Johnson). Slowly, however, it is revealed that she is physically fragile, and a childhood bout of rheumatic fever has left her in shambles and with mere months left to live. Even more distressingly, she begins to understand that the man she loves was paid to marry her by her father (Louis Calhern). With shades of Dark Victory, Invitation is a familiar melodrama of the time, elevated significantly by the performance of the vastly underrated McGuire. If the latter half begins to drag, the first half of the picture is a knockout due to her sympathetic performance. Her discovery is equal parts heartbreaking and horrifying–a little Douglas Sirk here, a little Gaslight there. McGuire plays it with increasing hysterics before finally succumbing to a defeated, vacant stare, and director Gottfried Reinhardt has the sense to let much of the drama play out in long takes of McGuire’s expressions. Unfortunately the film gets less interesting as it enters the second half, which focuses primarily on the perspective of Johnson, a rather bland leading man and one who has little chemistry with McGuire (a detail that serves the plot in the early-goings, but becomes a glaring problem once it is revealed that his love is legitimate). Ruth Roman contributes an icy supporting role, and Calhern is terrific as the father–in one scene, he listens to his daughter breaking down over the phone. McGuire plays the scene with the appropriate histrionics, but Calhern’s understated, sullen face is the perfect response, conveying the deepest heartbreak with little else but the movement of his brow.

Room for One More (1952)
December 25, 2014, 4:37 pm
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Director: Norman Taurog
3 Stars
Room for One MoreBetsy Drake’s career hadn’t quite taken off four years after her on-screen debut alongside future husband Cary Grant in Every Girl Should Be Married, and as a result the Hollywood couple selected this project with the intention of providing material worthy of her considerable talent. It’s a much different role than she played in their first collaboration–here, she’s the radiant image of maternal love, demonstrating a considerable patience and selflessness. She’s so strong-willed that she just about eats Grant up, who plays the skeptical husband who nonetheless never fails to reveal his soft side. Their best scene in the previous collaboration involved Drake confronting Grant at a lecture about how women shape their men in the early stages of a relationship, and similarly in this film Grant confronts Drake at a public forum about being a neglected husband before being put in his place by a room full of women. It’s appealing to see Grant show that vulnerability on screen–there’s a generosity in his willingness to be wrong and to be shamed. Room for One More is otherwise almost entirely forgettable, save for a particularly raunchy running joke about Grant’s sexual frustrations. There’s a terrific visual gag involving a champagne bottle exploding at the point where his libido is at its most unfulfilled.

Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952)
December 6, 2013, 6:17 am
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Director: Charles Lamont
2 Stars
Abbott and Costello Meet Captain KiddAs bad movies go, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd has its share of delightful moments, and they all come from Charles Laughton’s performance as the titular Kidd. It’s not that it’s a particularly good performance, but rather it is enormously satisfying to watch the great Laughton try his hand at slapstick. Unlike a few of Abbott and Costello’s previous co-stars in genre spoofs (such as Boris Karloff), Laughton was more than keen to work with the comedy duo–he reportedly insisted to producer Alex Gottlieb that he wanted to learn how to do a double-take from Lou Costello, and during the production he gladly did his own pratfalls. Despite the benefit of his unusual casting, that Laughton is in on the joke compromises the picture in some ways. The best “Meet” pictures were played straight by everyone but the comedy duo, who interrupted the genres they were spoofing like forces of nature. Even if Laughton’s eager comedic performance is not well-suited for the production, however, excluding him the film would be unwatchable. It struggles desperately to meet its meager seventy minute running time, with a handful of painful musical numbers serving as filler to segue from one tired gag to another. Beyond Laughton, cinematographer Stanley Cortez deserves a mention (who shot The Magnificent Ambersons and would soon shoot Laughton’s Night of the Hunger), however the cheap Super CineColor process is responsible for dull, pastel colors that make the already depressing affair look washed-out.

Dreamboat (1952)
February 27, 2012, 5:20 am
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Director: Claude Binyon

Hollywood’s greatest rival – television – is skewered in 1952’s Dreamboat, a dated but nevertheless fascinating representation of what the studios thought of their own history and of that devilish box. Clifton Webb stars as a college professor whose career is threatened when the silent films that he made in his youth are unearthed on a weekly television series, hosted by his former on-screen lover, played by Ginger Rogers. In the climax, Webb sits in a courtroom to fight for an injunction against the show, arguing that his films are not suited to appear on intellectually vacuous broadcasting networks. The picture parodies several advertisements that might have been seen in the era, such as an absurd song-and-dance number about prune juice, and, in the screening of one of Webb’s old silent films, it is revealed that Rogers has been adding advertisements into the intertitles. Along with the criticism of television is a sarcastic representation of the silent period. The Mark of Zorro and Wings are parodied, among others, and Webb’s embarrassment suggests that Hollywood was mocking the melodramatics of its own history. When his daughter asks if he wins at the end of a picture, Webb dryly responds, “with nauseating regularity.” The silent recreations are the most memorable sequences of the picture, with Webb and Rogers convincingly embodying the stars of the 1920s without a hint of condescension, despite the filmmaker’s less-than-flattering suggestion that it was a “lesser” era of movies. Though certainly snobbish and wrong-headed, Dreamboat offers a valuable perspective of the paranoia felt by Hollywood in the early 1950s.