For Reel

The Desperate Hours (1955)
October 26, 2016, 11:08 pm
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Director: William Wyler
4 Stars
the-desperate-hoursHumphrey Bogart’s screen career is nicely bookended by his first great success as a gangster in The Petrified Forest and as a similar villain in his penultimate film The Desperate Hours. His casting in the latter project was an intriguing choice—a thirty-year-old Paul Newman had played the role on Broadway, but the significantly older Bogart served as a more fitting adversary to the man of the house played by Fredric March. The drama unfolds as Bogart and two cronies invade a family’s suburban home and take them hostage. March, as the patriarch, does what he can to give the maximum resistance without serious consequences—it would be too easy to say that Bogart’s Glenn Griffin develops an admiration for him, but rather March’s moments of defiance develop a begrudging respect between the two. In many ways, this is March’s film, and therefore a film about the anxieties of a man losing control in his home—his authority challenged, March spends the film doing what he can to protect his wife and children and control the space to the best of his ability, but finds himself regularly foiled. Director William Wyler’s favoring of long takes in deep focus does well to capitalize on the ordinariness of the setting—Bogart’s arrival in the film, in particular, is not befit of a star of his type, rather a sudden, unspectacular shot in which Wyler makes an admirable choice by not capitalizing on Bogart’s stardom through close-ups, rather preserving the immediacy of the action.

The Night Holds Terror (1955)
July 20, 2016, 9:22 pm
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Director: Andrew L. Stone
3.5 Stars
The Night Holds TerrorThe real life hostage situation that began when Gene Courtier picked up a hitchhiker on his way home from work in 1953 came during a period when Hollywood was obsessed with similarly-themed invasion stories—the thugs from the street were now invading your car, your place of work, and even your home itself! Before William Wyler’s take on the Courtier story made its way to theaters as The Desperate Hours, this low-budget programmer so prided itself on authenticity that it used the real names of the victims and filmed much of the action on location, prompting one of the criminals (portrayed viciously by a young, tightly-wound John Cassavetes) to file a suit with Columbia Pictures. The Night Holds Terror. expands on the fatalism of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour in arguing that a simple wrong decision can be enough to destroy a life—in the early-goings, Courtier’s (played by Jack Kelly) voice-over continuously remarks on how each and every audience member can relate to the plot (“who hasn’t picked up a hitch-hiker before?”, he argues). It is when the film progresses from the similar ground covered in The Hitch-Hiker and into an authentic suburban home that director Andrew L. Stone finds the most suspense. The kitchen becomes a claustrophobic hellhole and a common household item like a pair of scissors becomes a key weapon. Among the film’s advocates is Quentin Tarantino, who selected it for the first installment of his own film festival in 1996.

Value for Money (1955)
June 30, 2016, 1:00 pm
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Director: Ken Annakin
3.5 Stars
Value for MoneyOn the surface, much of Value for Money seems familiar of Hollywood romantic comedies of the 1950s—gold diggers, dance numbers, and more than a little innuendo. In fact, in 1955 star Diana Dors was at the top of her career having been christened the “English Marilyn Monroe.” And yet, if much of the picture plays like a typical Monroe vehicle, the cultural context couldn’t be any more different. Value for Money is both a regional comedy (there are many in-jokes regarding accents and subtle differences in characterization depending on locale) and a product of the post-war era, resulting in a comedy of radical juxtapositions and cynicism—while Dors is the epitome of class, she is a direct contrast to the shabby town of Batley (the picture was actually partly filmed in West Yorkshire), distinguished by its remarkable drabby cobble streets coated with soot. Similarly, although the target of the gold digger is a wealthy man, he is literally haunted by the voice of his penny-pinching father—John Gregson plays the man with an endearing sense of self-deprecation, and his early courtship with Dors is kept interesting due to their shifting dynamic (as expected, she only becomes insistent in their relationship after she learns of the extent of his riches). Susan Stephen is quite good in the comparatively small role as Gregson’s fiancée. Although characters like her are often limited to sitting on the sidelines until their lovers get enough sense to come back to them, Stephen shows a steadfastness in her interactions with Gregson—she is not a humiliated victim, but rather a woman who is more than willing to walk out if her man doesn’t come to his senses in due time.

An Alligator Named Daisy (1955)
June 30, 2016, 12:57 pm
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Director: J. Lee Thompson
2.5 Stars
An Alligator Named DaisyIn the post-war era, it was Britain’s Ealing Studios that become synonymous with the country’s prestigious comedies—often starring Alec Guinness, they were decidedly more cynical than their American counterparts, typically involving murder or other such wrongdoings. If it is a surprise to see such a broad comedy come from J. Arthur Rank Productions (the “gong” strikes that begin their films is most iconic from the Powell & Pressburger masterpieces), An Alligator Named Daisy is also a significant piece of counter-programming. It more resembles a Hollywood comedy in its pacing and slapstick—the exotic pet itself seems a direct reference to Bringing Up Baby, albeit this picture finds itself more interested in the animal itself than the characters. And, in due fairness, it is something of a surprise that Daisy is so charming, if only due to the bizarre asynchronicity of an enormous reptile in a lowbrow farce. The humans around her aren’t quite so fascinating, although it is startling to see the engaged lead so freely open himself up to love elsewhere. Director J. Lee Thompson seems frankly overwhelmed by the material—the early indicator being a jarring musical number, ably performed by Jeannie Carson but given little in the way of production design or choreography—but the film is worth a look for those looking for a slightly off-kilter romantic comedy.

Blackboard Jungle (1955)
February 22, 2016, 2:20 pm
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Director: Richard Brooks
4 Stars
Blackboard JungleBlackboard Jungle was both a major conversation starter at the time of its release and part of a new push in Hollywood towards films that dealt with social realism using gritty filmic techniques inspired by documentaries. The opening credits, set to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”, is one of the great moments of populist rebellion in the history of the medium–it announced Hollywood’s intention to not only acknowledge rock n’ roll, but cater to its fans. Later rock films would pigeonhole the middle-aged as enemies, but Blackboard Jungle is a film that is (theoretically) about compromise and understanding, bridging the gap between generations. As a film about teaching in a tough school, there’s a lot that it gets right. The personalities in the teachers lounge and the conversations therein are all-too-familiar, as is a great scene wherein Mr. Dadier (Glenn Ford) is confronted by his principal without getting to share his side of the story. Furthermore, if the film’s dealings with race are problematic from today’s eyes, Sidney Poitier gives a remarkable performance as a young student who serves as a leader of the classroom–he has enough power and screen presence that he avoids simply becoming a “tool” used by the white teacher. Unfortunately, Blackboard Jungle is saddled with a third act so hypocritical that it almost undermines it all. Despite being a film about trying to understand and reach out to a younger generation, it ultimately settles on the decision to identify the “problem” students and remove them from the classroom. What could have been a picture that championed teacher’s rights and illustrates methods of coping with a generational shift becomes one that demonizes certain delinquents. Regardless, the climactic failing is all that prevents this from being a masterpiece, both for its remarkable performances and the sense of immediacy with which director Richard Brooks brings to the material.

The White Angel (1955)
February 15, 2016, 2:41 pm
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Director: Raffaello Matarazzo
4 Stars
The White AngelThe second half of a diptych melodrama from Raffaello Matarazzo, The White Angel continues the plot threads of Nobody’s Children, but additionally ads an almost mystical dimension with the appearance of a woman who looks exactly like Luisa (Yvonne Sanson), the lover-turned-nun that was the object of Count Guido’s obsession (Amedeo Nazzari) in the first installment. As with Hitchcock’s Vertigo three years later, the doppelgänger becomes a means of “doing over” one’s past, allowing the potential for self-destructive immersion therapy. In their first encounter, Guido does little but stare at Lina longingly before falling mysteriously ill. Along with her beauty, however, Lina’s appearance spells a whole new chain of disastrous events, the hands of fate not quite done with these characters. What distinguishes The White Angel is not just the pre-Vertigo treatment of obsession, but that it is film with a wealth of female characters playing nearly every archetype. Sanson herself plays both the nun and a swindler, and in the latter half of the picture Lina finds herself in a women’s prison, where one of her fellow inmates will endanger a child. Melodramas often deal with topics of femininity, but rarely does one see the sheer breadth of character types as in The White Angel. Furthermore, Matarazzo’s fixation on the highly-Catholic narrative reaches a beautifully poetic destination, marking enormous character changes and suggesting that a new chapter will be wrought out of all of the misery that has been endured.

To Catch a Thief (1955)
February 13, 2016, 1:30 am
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
3.5 Stars
To Catch a ThiefHitchcock admitted in interview that To Catch a Thief was a “vacation movie.” That was indeed the case for Cary Grant, who after briefly considering retirement returned to the screen for the promise of co-starring with Grace Kelly and filming on the French Riviera. Similarly, audiences have noted that To Catch a Thief is arguably among Hitchcock’s lightest and most pleasurable works, rife with sexual innuendos and comparatively little violence. There is slightly more going on than beautiful French vistas and erotic dialogue, however–it marks a nicely compact turning point in Hitchcock’s career, both looking back to The Birds with a self-referential cameo and looking forward to later masterpieces like Vertigo (with the meaningful insistence upon jade lighting) and North By Northwest (with a scene involving a threatening plane looming overhead). Kelly is used remarkably well as a bored socialite. She enjoys toying with Grant with a certain detachment in the early-goings, but by the time he invites her to participate in a car chase, she’s completely aroused by the excitement of it all. Rarely in a Hitchcock film is someone so openly titillated about the idea of participating in the narrative. Similarly, it is a picture in which the characters revel in the their disguises, whether that be as a means of discarding past identities (Grant’s wish to retreat from his thieving past; Jessie Royce Landis asking to be referred to by her first name) or opening the possibilities for new ones. The fireworks scene is among the most outrageous erotic moments in Hollywood cinema–so much so that some of the sensuality is lost among the inevitable snickering–but it is a microcosm of the film itself, lightly amusing and still occupied with such radical, distinct touches.

Rififi (1955)
June 22, 2015, 8:50 pm
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Director: Jules Dassin
3.5 Stars
RififiThe famed centerpiece of Jules Dassin’ Rififi is a silent heist sequence that lasts about thirty minutes. It’s a masterpiece of nonverbal communication, both between the characters on screen and what Dassin is able to relate to the audience. The thoughts and anxieties of the criminals are transferred through editing, spatial relationships, and the performances of the actors, and the audience is informed of the processes entailed only as the events are occurring. For a genre that often relishes in characters who posture and talk a big game, it’s a nice change of pace to demonstrate the criminals as simple tradesmen doing their jobs. There isn’t a lot else in the picture that lives up to the masterful heist, which seems more cobbled together than a unified vision–Brute Force, Thieves’ Highway, and even The Naked City feel like they have better determined, understood worlds. The nightclub song that reveals the meaning of the title (roughly translated as “rough and tumble”) seems interested in a psychosexual interpretation of criminal acts, but Dassin all but abandons the idea in favor of discussing the masculine code. Dassin was often interested in exploring the unspoken rules that governed man’s relationship with his fellow man (his later film, La Loi, being the most literal example), but here it seems like his character’s motivations don’t extend far beyond vengeance, with each act seeming like a mere spoke on a cycle of violence.

Pather Panchali (1955)
June 17, 2015, 10:19 pm
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Director: Satyajit Ray
4.5 Stars
Pather PanchaliWhen Bosley Crowther, the highly influential critic of the New York Times, reviewed Pather Panchali in 1958, he drew attention to the film’s “mosaic” quality. That is, unlike a conventionally structured Hollywood film, Satyajit Ray’s debut feature progresses as a series of episodes, as if serving as a loosely structured tour of an impoverished Indian village and of a way of life. While the patient rhythm wasn’t unique to cinema at the time (even classical American directors such as John Ford favored a steady poeticism in their images), nor was the sense of realism in the images of poverty (the neorealism movement was a decade old at this point), there was something different about Ray’s approach. Besides the universality of his themes regarding the relationships and the roles that we form within our households, there’s a terrifically elegiac quality about the images. The shots of aged auntie (Chunibala Devi), cast aside and knowingly marching to her death, carry the weight of not only the action in the present tense, but of the very idea of a discarding of the past. Apu’s (Subir Banerjee) development in this first installment of the trilogy is mostly as an observer–a watching eye, trying to grasp the relationships between those around him and the world he inhabits. The famed image of his confrontation with a train doesn’t quite suggest his desire to leave home, but of his growing awareness of a world outside. To a child, that thought is as magical as it is bewildering.

The Ladykillers (1955)
February 28, 2015, 9:56 pm
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Director: Alexander Mackendrick
5 Stars
The LadykillersOne of Ealing Studios’ most remembered comedies, The Ladykillers stars Alec Guinness as the leader of a group of criminals who take residence in an innocent old woman’s (Katie Johnson) boardinghouse. Guinness, with sullen pale cheeks, bulging eyes, and preposterously large fake teeth, plays his character as a sort of Nosferatu figure–in fact, his entrance in the film is in a series of shadows that loom over the house of the old woman. The creeping shade of death is a provocative image for post-war London, a time when audiences were all the more aware of how external horrors could potentially permeate the home front. Even before Johnson’s house is infected by the men, she exclaims that her paintings no longer hang straight because of subsidence from bombings (a perfectly satirical idealization of the stubbornly resilient “carry on” mantra). While the first half enjoyably indulges the game of keeping the crimes a secret from the invasive old woman, the second half becomes a masterpiece of repetition and stylized, dryly humorous violence.