For Reel

The Sea Around Us (1953)
December 29, 2016, 3:31 pm
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Director: Irwin Allen
1.5 Stars
the-sea-around-usRachel L. Carson’s best-selling study about the mysteries of the deep was adapted by future disaster film director Irwin Allen. Reportedly, when Carson previewed the script that RKO would be putting into production, she was gobsmacked by the result. It is easy to see why—whereas figures like Jacques Cousteau and Jean Painlevé wisely treaded the line between scientific analysis and sensationalist spectacle, Allen’s exploration is all the latter. The filmed sequences would be better fit for a deep sea action adventurer film, including an intense battle between a shark and an octopus, and particularly a few shockingly violent images involving a diver hacking through a moray eel before stabbing a shark and a climactic whale hunt. Disregarding the ethical qualms about presenting this sort of entertainment in a documentary wrought to inform, one is constantly aware of a surface-level, almost barbaric sort of amusement. Allen sees the ocean not as the incredible result of millions of years of evolution, but as nature’s most incredible boxing ring.

Niagara (1953)
October 3, 2016, 10:12 pm
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Director: Henry Hathaway
4 Stars
niagaraIn Niagara, director Henry Hathaway takes an equal interest in the dual spectacles of the eponymous Falls and Marilyn Monroe herself. They are both distinguished as possessing breathtaking beauty and the potential for causing incredible havoc. Despite the inspiring beauty of the location, the water’s mist creeps with the same foreboding as the fog of a Universal cemetery. Similarly, Monroe’s presentation is as unabashedly pleasurable as it is in any of her films (including peekaboo glimpses through a shower door and sheets just barely covering her body), but that she is treated as all surface is a contradiction with the fact that she possesses dangerous hidden agendas. In one of her most glamorous scenes, she taunts her traumatized veteran husband (Joseph Cotten) by playing the record that reminds her of an ex-lover. That the film deals with the way audiences perceive certain images is met well by the honeymooning Polly and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams and Jean Peters), who witness the perversity and murder as outsiders. Niagara is a hugely unusual noir in the way it shifts point-of-view and seems noncommittal in dealing with Cotten’s damaged war veteran (most noirs would insist on following his perspective), and the similarly daring cinematography by Joe MacDonald memorably conveys the unbridled, potentially lethal passions of the waterfall.

The Band Wagon (1953)
February 22, 2016, 2:14 pm
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Director: Vincente Minnelli
4 Stars
The Band WagonSome critics have lauded The Band Wagon as the true highpoint of the American musical, a finer success than the previous year’s Singin’ in the Rain. No doubt this appraisal has much to do with its self conscious play with performance–in the film, it is made evident that the great power of the theater involves making “real life” theatrical, but director Vincente Minnelli is just as keen at showing the reverse. In The Band Wagon, the line between the stage and the world is not just a blurred one, but Minnelli argues that they are inextricably linked. Minnelli’s championing of the musical is also distinguished further by his love of entertainment and spectacle–this is a film of pop culture pastiche, weaving together set pieces in the vein of a typical revue show. In scoffing at more “elitist” forms of stage plays, the film becomes Minnelli’s Sullivan’s Travels. Like Preston Sturges in that film, Minnelli uses The Band Wagon as an artistic statement of purpose, remarking on his love for entertainment and suggesting the transcendent potential of the musical genre (as Sturges did with comedy). Ultimately, the picture’s set pieces are the real show, and the linking material doesn’t ascend far above the usual backstage comedy. But the “Shine on Your Shoes” piece, in particular, is one of the most visually thrilling sequences of its era, an even greater accomplishment than the famous “Girl Hunt” ballet.

Summer with Monika (1953)
February 3, 2016, 7:30 pm
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Director: Ingmar Bergman
3.5 Stars
Summer with MonikaIn the last scene of Summer with Monika, a dutiful father (Lars Ekborg) stares at himself in a mirror at the very spot where his ex-wife (Harriet Andersson) had stood earlier in the picture. Echoing the famed shot of Andersson in which she breaks the fourth wall as the background slowly fades into darkness, Ekborg is left illuminated in a similar void as his memories take him back to the island where he spent the eponymous romantic getaway that resulted in his child. Moments later, he is brought back to reality, the setting comes into light and focus once more, and in reflection he sees his sold belongings being paraded down the street. This scene not only revels in Ingmar Bergman’s lasting fascination with the face, but also in the collapsing of memories and lives. A mirror becomes a symbol of timelessness–past and present coexisting at once, memories coming to vividly to life and eulogized in this brief montage which suggests the impermanence of happiness. It feels like the only honest and earned moment in the entire epilogue, which finds the lovers back in the real world and dealing with a specifically Bergman type of miserablism. It is not that the portrayed cynical reality is unrealistic, but that it so shepherds in conventions of domestic melodrama that it all but obscures everything that has come before it. Monika is no more the complex, damaged heroine, but a vitriolic, ungrateful housewife. Regardless of that crucial inconsistency, the final shot anticipates the beautiful richness of many of Bergman’s images to come, and the time spent on the island is memorably rendered as a hugely sensual, but ultimately self-destructive love affair.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
January 31, 2016, 4:35 pm
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Director: Howard Hawks
5 Stars
Gentlemen Prefer BlondesWhen Andrew Sarris wrote of Hawksian masculinity, he described that men in Howard Hawks films are often measured by their work, with their method of seducing women almost irrelevant to how one conceives of their manhood. The women in Hawks films, then, are typically mysterious and distant–in fact, they often infantilize the men by acting as remarkably adept heterosexual males, most famously Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, then, is a remarkable detour for Hawks on the level of gender politics, foregrounding two impeccably strong women even before the opening credits have rolled. Not only are Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell framed side-by-side facing the camera–devouring every inch of the frame with their sequined gowns and seductive glances–but Tommy Noonan, as an audience member, is shown in brief moments to be a limp fish, his reaction shots comical in his utter powerlessness. This opening sequence marks Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as one of the essential feminist texts of the 1950s, a complete subversion of the sexual politics laid out by Laura Mulvey. As Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca analyzed, “By becoming active themselves, they make it impossible for men to act upon them.” The way that Hawks accomplishes the power of this sexual spectacle makes Lorelei Lee perhaps the defining character of Marilyn Monroe’s career in that it wisely exposed and subverted Monroe’s screen image. Lee, as Monroe was in many of her films, is fully in control of the fantasy she represents–she is not one to be fawned over, but one who creates the conditions in which she is desired.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
January 1, 2016, 1:14 pm
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Director: Jean Negulesco
2.5 Stars
How to Marry a MillionaireIn an effort to lure audiences back from their television sets, Fox Production Chief Darryl Zanuck spearheaded a push towards anamorphic CinemaScope with a pair of very different epics in The Robe and How to Marry a Millionaire. While the widescreen technology was a clear fit for a biblical epic–the wider screen insisting that audiences will have more to gape at–there is a similar attraction to be found in this Jean Negulesco comedy. Here, a trio of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars (including new “it” girl Marilyn Monroe) are paraded in swimsuits and other chic outfits for the audience’s delight. The film makes such a game out of spectatorship that it withholds a sight of the beauties for the first ten minutes, which includes a prolonged overture and a title sequence that places the viewer in New York city. At its best, How to Marry a Millionaire draws attention to the act of modeling, such as one sequence where the three leads rest on perches as if they were lovebirds, smiles desperately plastered on their face. But despite Lauren Bacall’s best efforts, none of the other cast, nor Negulesco himself seem to know what to do with the material. More unfortunate is the fact that Negulesco conceives of the wider format as a way of positioning more bodies horizontally across the screen. The actors often stand next to each other and the camera needs to track back and forth to capture the crowded staging. There is very little sense of depth–everything exists on the same plane, all the figures smiling at us for approval. At its worst, the new CinemaScope process taught filmmakers to work laterally, as if any bit of unoccupied foreground was a wasted opportunity.

Roman Holiday (1953)
December 3, 2015, 6:28 pm
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Director: William Wyler
4 Stars
Roman HolidayThe great appeal of Roman Holiday is that it involves a romance established almost entirely through gestures and unspoken words. The iconic “Mouth of Truth” scene is enlivened by a sense of two guilty parties grappling with whether or not to reveal their secrets to each other, and the final act lets the sentimental drama of forgiveness and longing unfold with nothing but a few well-edited glances and plays with staging. These moments should perhaps be credited to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, but director William Wyler’s insistence on small gestures–the way Gregory Peck transfers money from his breast pocket to his pants–suggests his fascination with nonverbal forms of communication, both between his characters and between filmmaker and the audience. Wyler’s sense of space is also commendable, favoring deep-focus, long shots of both the interior and exterior of Peck’s apartment that orient the audience within the location. As much as these little details work, however, Wyler is not as savvy with comedy as directors like Lubitsch or Wilder, and not all of the jokes land with quite the force that they should–there’s something missing, something a little mechanical and stilted about much of the picture. Regardless, as a romance it is utterly irresistible, and the film’s handful of truly great moments elevate it to the standard of its reputation.

The Blue Gardenia (1953)
October 16, 2015, 9:39 pm
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Director: Fritz Lang
4 Stars
The Blue GardeniaThe mistreatment of Fritz Lang by Hollywood had perhaps reached its apex with The Blue Gardenia, affording him a micro-budget and a rushed production schedule to match it. Regardless, the picture is an often fascinating variant on Lang’s themes of rituals and obsessions. The song that gives the film its title (first appearing in a performance by Nat King Cole) is repeated frequently throughout, eventually becoming inextricably linked with the murderess herself. Later, Norah Larkin (Ann Baxter) receives parallel letters–one, from a boyfriend who has left her; and the other, from a newspaper columnist (Richard Conte) reaching out to the anonymous killer. This sense of reproduction is further exemplified by Norah’s physical resemblance to her roommates, concluding with Crystal (Ann Sothern) actually posing as Norah and vice versa. For the most part, ace RKO cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca tones down his usual insistence on high contrast images. While a centerpiece sequence involves the massive, imposing shadows of the letters of the Chronicle headquarters, more often than not the lighting comes from above and is rather flat, having the look of a television broadcast. Regardless, this visual style serves as an interesting metaphor considering the way that the film is obsessed with reproduction and various forms of homogenization.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
November 16, 2014, 11:41 pm
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Director: Ida Lupino
4.5 Stars
The Hitch-HikerThe first (only?) film noir directed by a woman, The Hitch-Hiker is spare and relentless, with the tension grinding oppressively on the audience for the entirety of its brief running time. As was often the case with film noir, the primary concern is the creeping of violence into the everyday. The entire ad campaign (as well as an opening title card) emphasized that the audience might be susceptible to the same terrors that they would see on screen. Like Detour or Out of the Past, there is a fatalistic element–the heroes have little will to exert over the greater forces in play. Perhaps the most disturbing articulation of this concept are the scenes in which the victims (Edmond O’Brien & Frank Lovejoy) consider escaping while their captor (the terrifying William Talman) sleeps. The problem is that Talman’s paralyzed eye remains open at all times, making it impossible to know whether he’s conscious or not. For a film about a hostage situation, it’s surprising how few escapes are attempted–they are along for the ride, not expecting a merciful conclusion but simply sapped of their will to fight. No matter what they do, he’s always watching.

House of Wax (1953)
November 4, 2014, 3:46 pm
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Director: André De Toth
3.5 Stars
House of WaxWhen he set out to make House of Wax, it would seem that director André De Toth didn’t intend to direct a film so much as he did construct a theme park ride. Just as the novelty of moving pictures was mined in the earliest silent films, De Toth is so amused by the concept of 3D that he doesn’t shy away from being obvious and even self-referential with it. In one scene, an entertainer directs the trajectory of a ball and paddle towards the camera while talking directly to the audience (which Vincent Price jokes is just a gimmick to bring the customers in). If that particular kind of attraction is so transparent that it almost spoils the fun, De Toth gets more out of exploiting his most grotesque images–it is as if the film grinds to a halt just to revel in the horror of dozens of melting wax figures in the opening act. The fact that such images are often shot in brightly-lit, colorful settings sets a unique tone for a genre that usually revels in darkness and shadows. While much of the picture falls flat in terms of scares or suspense, the final sequence is effectively disturbing, as is Price as a seemingly dignified gentleman with snark to spare.