For Reel

The King and I (1956)
September 11, 2016, 4:40 pm
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Director: Walter Lang
3.5 Stars
The King and IThis over-inflated Rogers and Hammerstein production undeniably has its charms, even if it often suffers from the same sluggishness of the typically overproduced spectacles of its ilk (a subplot involving the forbidden romance between Rita Moreno and Carlos Rivas is permission to take a quick nap). As the mother hen who promotes Western ideals in the kingdom of Siam, Deborah Karr is captivating—her steadfastness is not to be taken for self-seriousness, with her performance allowing glimpses of both levity and sensuality. As oddly captivating as Yul Brynner is, his performance would be dead in the water without Karr as the straight woman, who gives him the required sensitivity and sentimentality. The film’s most enduring quality is its sense of repressed sexuality—in the same way that many flock to Victorian novels for the steamy but understated romances, The King and I involves a romantic relationship that Hollywood was unwilling to put on movie screens too blatantly. As a result, Brynner’s bare chest, Karr’s revealing evening gown, and one well placed hand on a waist carries a remarkable sense of unbridled passion, adding an extra intensity to Karr and Brynner’s scenes together. If the songs aren’t particularly memorable, the performances and the enchanting surrealism of the Jerome Robbins choreographed Uncle Tom’s Cabin setpiece age the film better than one might think.

The Bitter Stems (1956)
August 28, 2016, 1:23 pm
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Director: Fernando Ayala
4 Stars
The Bitter StemsThis recent discovery by the Film Noir Foundation sees a Buenos Aires journalist (Carlos Cores) going into business with a Hungarian immigrant (Vassili Lambrinos) in a get-rich scheme involving a journalism correspondence school. As distrust simmers in the partnership, a tragedy occurs and the fallout is detailed with a hugely expressionistic edge by cinematographer Ricardo Younis (a student of Gregg Toland). A repeated motif involves a retreat into Cores’ interiority—mid-conversation, a word will trigger a flashback in the character, and Younis drains all the light from the room to focus on the character’s anguish. If the technique is overused, it provides a few astonishing transitions, and also lays the groundwork for an early sequence that imagines alternating symbols of capitalism and fascism in a fever dream—dollars are represented as monolithic, a child is seduced by the battlefield, and so on. Cores plays his character’s sense of remorse quite well, and director Fernando Ayala lingers on the fact that his protagonist is haunted by ever having met his business partner—in a genre where men often regret meeting the women who’ve thrown their lives asunder, it’s an interesting twist that the protagonist regrets meeting a man who brought out an evil within himself. As much as its lineage with American film noir is apparent, The Bitter Stems just as appropriately recalls the melodramas of Raffaello Matarazzo, with the sensationalized emotions playing as almost mythic in scale.

The Iron Petticoat (1956)
February 13, 2016, 1:39 am
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Director: Ralph Thomas
2 Stars
The Iron PetticoatA bizarre, ill-fated novelty in which two asynchronous talents came together to make a complete disaster, The Iron Petticoat not only lead to critical scorn at the time of its release, but prompted full-page ads taken out in The Hollywood Reporter by screenwriter Ben Hecht claiming that Bob Hope had decimated his script. Among Hecht’s criticisms (also alluded to by Katharine Hepburn) was that Hepburn’s Captain Vinka Kovelenko plays second fiddle to Hope’s Major “Chuck” Lockwood–yes, Hepburn herself has to be a prop to Hope’s vaudeville humor! More bizarre than the pairing is the incredible misuse of Hepburn. Not only saddled with a terrible, inconsistent accent, the screenplay calls for her play “sexy”–something Hepburn wasn’t known for in the thirties, let alone two decades later. In the picture, she shops for a black negligee and even shows off her garters and long stockings. Director Ralph Thomas is as baffled as anyone would be given the task and lets the action unfold from a distance, having no sense of a guiding hand in the narrative. In the incompetence of the comedy and the all-encompassing failure of nearly every aspect in the production, this ranks alongside other 1950s comedy misfires like Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, which similarly teamed a pair of comics with a noted thespian (Charles Laughton). Had The Iron Petticoat been a serviceable Hope vehicle, the experiment might have been excusable, but even on those terms the film doesn’t contain a single memorable gag. The closest thing to a laugh happens with the sheer dissonance of the legendary Katharine Hepburn ogling an inflatable brasier (one of many mammary-obsessed jokes in the film) and critcizing, “ze illusions of democracy!”

Jubal (1956)
June 16, 2015, 6:54 pm
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Director: Delmer Daves
3.5 Stars
JubalRod Steiger plays Iago to Ernest Borgnine’s Othello in Jubal, a slow-burner of a western from director Delmer Daves. When a drifter played by Glenn Ford finds himself employed by a cheerful rancher (Borgnine), the senior ranch hand (Steiger) starts feeling his position severely threatened. Worse yet, he’s just as unsuccessful in seducing his boss’ wife (Valerie French) as the newcomer is in getting her attention. Although Jubal takes its narrative roots from Othello, what it does most of all is adopt a very 1950s style of classical melodrama. The jealousy and resentments simmer for the first two thirds of the picture until a very dramatic boiling over occurs in the final third, spear-headed by Steiger’s embittered manipulations. It plays a bit like Written on the Wind, Douglas Sirk’s masterpiece from the same year, with the growing feelings of impotence and resentment bearing down on an unstable wild card (not to mention the similarities in the seductive femme fatales played by Dorothy Malone in the Sirk film and French). Steiger’s method performance feels like it’s too much, which is especially problematic considering Borgnine’s success in a similarly big role. Whereas Steiger plays a single crass note, however, Borgnine’s performance evolves depending on who he is sharing the screen with, and the relationship he develops with Ford is at times genuinely touching. There’s a nice moment in which he shows a believable naïveté regarding his failures as a husband–only Borgnine could sell the surprise that smacking his wife on the behind isn’t the most effective means of displaying affection.

A Man Escaped (1956)
February 10, 2012, 12:07 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

Made with utter precision and wasting not a single shot, A Man Escaped is, formally, a perfect movie. Like the protagonist, it is deeply focused on its objective, stripping away every superfluous distraction that has no relevance to the destination. There is never a question about what the next task is – carve through this plank; cover the hole so as not to be discovered; deliver a letter; retrieve a spoon – and each progression is an opera of suspense, with the length of each cut, the inhibited visual perspective from within the cell, and the sounds that ring from outside banding together in cinematic synergy. It is storytelling in its purest form, and as such it may be director Robert Bresson at his most accessible, catering to both those academically curious and those looking for a thrill. Bresson, it is known, spent a year and a half as a prisoner of war in a German prison, and as such it is plausible to suggest that the film is at least loosely autobiographical. The film wastes no time to show the hero with his head in his hands and feeling defeated – wallowing in misery is the last thing on the mind of the prisoner, rather he obsesses diligently about the prospect of escaping, envisioning circumstance after circumstance that could lead to his salvation. To quote Bresson, “When one is in prison, the most important thing is the door.”

The Searchers (1956)
January 4, 2012, 8:49 pm
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Director: John Ford

One of the most terrifying films ever made about obsession, Ethan Edwards is John Wayne at his most dynamic. He is a long way from the Ringo Kid – here, he angrily shoots Indians as they’re running away, and, for the majority of the picture, it seems clear that he will execute his niece. To say she is his niece, though, is to overlook the evidence that Edwards carried out an affair with his brother’s wife (watch, for example, the scene in which she folds Edwards’ clothes and tenderly delivers them to him while the Reverend struggles to turn a blind eye). What makes John Ford fascinating to study is his evolution – though he would never admit to be an artist, in The Searchers he is at his most self-referential. After Edwards’ frightening declaration, “They ain’t white. Not any more.”, watch the way Ford pans towards Wayne’s face – a clear echo of the Ringo Kid’s introduction in Stagecoach. This is post-war Ford at his most unromantic.

Bob le flambeur (1956)
May 20, 2011, 9:44 pm
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Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

A precursor to the French New Wave, Melville’s Bob le flambeur anticipates many of the stylistic innovations that French cinema would offer in the 1960s. A love-letter to American gangster pictures, the film involves a disembodied, all-seeing narrator and even a sequence in which we see a planned heist as imagined by the titular gambler.

Beyond the fun that it has with its narrative structure, Bob le flambeur successfully adapts the gangster genre’s traditions and invents a wholly original protagonist. Described as an “old young man, a legend of recent past”, Bob’s characterization suggests the gangsters of the 1930s. He’s loyal, honest, and, most important to the narrative purposes of the plot, undistracted by women. His protege, on the other hand, is reckless – just as The Godfather would juxtapose two generations of crime, we can perhaps view Bob le flambeur as evoking a nostalgia of the gangsters of the past.

In the end, Bob’s Achilles heel reveals itself to no surprise. The narrator often discusses fate – “Now Bob is about to play his final hand and fate will have its way.” – and throughout the film Bob challenges his ever-unreliable lucky streaks through his simple need to roll the die. Although the film suggests Christian symbolism in a few places – notably in the roulette wheel at the end of the film – Bob’s fate appears to not be dictated by himself or by any God, rather by his only true muse: lady luck herself. Such is the life of a gambler.