For Reel

Bells Are Ringing (1960)
October 4, 2016, 9:15 pm
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Director: Vincente Minnelli
2.5 Stars
bells-are-ringingJudy Holliday’s star persona was as unique as any of her peers in the 1950s—with her breakout role in Born Yesterday, she showed both a fieriness and a palpable sense of vulnerability, thanks in large part to her extraordinary control of her vocal inflections. Bells Are Ringing gives her the role that brought her her most lasting success (she played the role on the stage in over 900 performances), but ironically the film version stifles her talents as a star, with both the stagebound direction and the uninspired performance by Dean Martin transforming Holliday’s energy into something more resembling desperation. Vincente Minnelli stages the material largely in wide or two shots, and the sets neither convince nor delight in the way that the typical MGM musical would in its blatant affectations. Holliday is fun to watch, but her best moments only make one mourn for what could have been.

The Bellboy (1960)
March 27, 2016, 11:50 pm
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Director: Jerry Lewis
3.5 Stars
The BellboyJerry Lewis’ first film as a director begins with what feels like an apology from a phony Paramount executive, who explains that the film has a plotless nature and is simply a series of gags strung together. This explanation is a rare moment in Lewis’ filmography in which he attempts to explain his process to the audience and indulges the desire to defend his sensibilities—it is not just a preamble for the film to follow, but the marked birth of a new screen auteur. The Bellboy has the feel of flipping through a comedian’s notepad of half-sketched ideas, but it is peppered with a handful of wondrously surreal touches–a flashbulb that turns night into day; a restaurant window that looks out into a hotel swimming pool. Importantly, Lewis also plays with the medium of film itself as a means of setting up a joke. On more than one occasion, he uses offscreen space as a punchline. When the eponymous bellboy (Lewis) is tasked with setting up hundreds of chairs in a theater, it is accomplished in less than a minute. Later, he attempts to be seated at a restaurant, only to find a previously empty bar overcrowded in the time it took the camera to pan. Lewis’ genius involves this very play between his screen persona and the medium itself–as a comedian, Lewis is a performer who not only knows he’s being watched and laughed at, but one who knows the eccentricities of the framings and edits happening around him.

The Housemaid (1960)
February 15, 2016, 4:22 pm
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Director: Kim Ki-young
4 Stars
The HousemaidThe framing device of The Housemaid establishes the film as a fable, serving both to warn men about the dangers of their philandering impulses and suggesting how vulnerable bourgeois homelife can be to outside influences. A husband (Kim Jin-kyu) reads an article to his wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) about how a housemaid tore apart a family, which prompts them to reflect on how reliant they themselves are on their own servant. So begins a fever dream in which class boundaries are shattered and a comfortable, two-story Westernized home becomes a prison to the family that inhabits it. As the eponymous housemaid, Lee Eun-shim is effectively terrifying–she’s a cunning, animalistic id, whose satisfaction at disposing of a rodent early in her tenure should have been enough of a warning sign. Director Kim Ki-young accentuates the levels of discomfort the film operates in by the unrelenting camera movements and score–the music is often diegetic, with Eun-shim pounding away at dissonant chords on a piano. Furthermore, the horizontal tracking shots that view the interior of the house from the outside gives a full perspective to the chaos. In these images, one side of the house is shown to be completely glass, as if serving as a dollhouse for the audience to peak inside. Similarly, although the husband and wife often speak of the size of the house, it is filmed with an insistence on claustrophobia, most evident by the number of scenes that take place on a narrow staircase. The staircase itself comes to serve as a metaphor for both the shifting power dynamic and the discombobulation of the characters, who struggle to maintain their sanity in this hallucinatory, nightmarish thriller.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
October 2, 2015, 7:48 pm
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Director: Ken Annakin
3 Stars
Swiss Family RobinsonIn the third act of Swiss Family Robinson, the eponymous clan fends off the attacks of hordes of non-white pirates through a series of carefully contrived booby traps. It’s as bizarre a sequence as any in Disney’s history–look, for instance, at the glee in which a young boy (Kevin Corcoran) throws a coconut grenade at an approaching enemy, or his excitement to see his allies crushed to death. What’s particularly unusual is that the picture approaches these sequences as characteristic of family bonding, where the unit is gathered together in the spirit of strengthening their relationships by defeating their foes. Very little has changed tonally from a previous scene in which they dressed in bright colors and rode animals, and yet now they are leaving corpses in their wake. While it might be a stretch to get too sociopolitical in discussing the issues of race at play and, in particular, the way the film demonstrates colonialism (Corcoran hops on a tortoise immediately after stepping foot on the island, as if claiming his territory), the film has some camp pleasures to be had in its utter irresponsibility regarding such issues. Dorothy McGuire, one of the most interesting actresses of the 1940s, is unfortunately wasted (she is a woman and this is a Disney movie after all), but John Mills is solid as the patriarch.

The Passionate Thief (1960)
September 18, 2015, 7:45 pm
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Director: Mario Monicelli
4 Stars
The Passionate ThiefJoyful Laughter is the literal translation of this 1960 comedy, but director Mario Monicelli is far more interested in comedic registers that don’t necessarily have anything to do with merriment. As is typical of the commedia all’italiana style, The Passionate Thief is both cynical and shrewd, a film that reveals itself to be very much about desperation. Who better to play a woman that laughs off her sorrow than Anna Magnani, a Cinecittà extra who remains blissfully unaware that she has been cast aside as an undesirable on New Year’s Eve? The incongruity of her demeanor and her situation is echoed by Monicelli’s dynamic presentation of Rome, which includes both bustling nightclubs and the lonesome streets where a drunk American (Fred Clark) will attempt his best imitation of the Trevi Fountain scene from La Dolce Vita. If all of this sounds dispiriting on paper, it plays as something sublime–the title sequence involves a terrific montage that matches up-tempo jazz with images of bustling Italian streets during Christmastime. Ben Gazzara (in a dubbed role) and especially noted Italian comedian Tòto are enjoyable in their roles, but Magnani in a blonde wig is worth the price of admission.

Village of the Damned (1960)
November 4, 2014, 3:39 pm
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Director: Wolf Rilla
3.5 Stars
Village of the DamnedThis low budget classic begins when all of the residents of a small English town inexplicably fall into a deep trance. A few hours later, they wake up with seemingly no ill-effects… until it is discovered that a dozen of the town’s women are pregnant. Village of the Damned arguably works best before the iconic white-haired children are introduced. This is because director Wolf Rilla is more interested in (and successful at) exploring how the characters react to the inexplicable rather than explaining exactly what happened. The motivations of the invaders are left intentionally vague and instead the human anxieties are mined with an almost scientific curiosity–what happens to relationships when they are confronted by something unexplainable? George Sanders is charming as always in the lead, but perhaps a bit too detached and cool for this particular setting. The most memorable performance is by Martin Stephens as the lead child, whose blank, vacant stare continues to terrify.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)
September 12, 2012, 5:35 pm
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Director: Mikio Naruse

Shot in crisp black-and-white CinemaScope and accompanied with a jazz score, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs should come as a surprise to anyone who has seen any of Mikio Naruse’s earlier, more staid features. Although Keiko, the protagonist played by Naruse’s muse, Hideko Takamine, is hard-working, her immediate setting sets her drastically apart from Repast‘s’ Michiyo, whose drab, middle-class life was characterized by a lack of communication. The two women, though, are both at the mercy of an intensely patriarchal society, quite literally in the latter picture in which Keiko’s disappointing encounters with three potential suitors leads her to a dead end. Western audiences will be forgiven if they assume that Keiko is a prostitute in the early-goings, but she is far from it – though sleeping with customers is part of the job for some of her co-workers, as a hostess she specializes in flattery and companionship, scoffing at the idea of taking the relationships any further. While Naruse maintains her integrity in that respect, however, the film’s most unfortunate scene involves her manager, a romantic interest played by Tatsuya Nakadai, brutally chastising her for sleeping with someone else – watching such an already disheartened woman endure such vitriol is unpleasant both intellectually and morally, as one questions whether or not the picture is excessively sadomasochistic in its treatment of her. Regardless, Takamine is magnificent as the protagonist, and the way that Naruse details the bar and its inhabitants is most satisfying, establishing an unforgettable setting that one can imagine still bustles with life all of these years later.

Two Women (1960)
February 17, 2012, 12:21 am
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Director: Vittorio De Sica

The first time that the Academy Award for Best Actress was given to a non-English performance was in 1962, when, in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women, Sophia Loren proved that she was more than just a sex symbol with a heartbreaking performance as a mother in 1943 Italy. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, the picture is at its best when it examines the attitude that the rural Italians of Loren’s home village have about the war. While some of the civilians dismissively comment that it doesn’t matter who wins, a young intellectual played by Jean-Paul Belmondo is an impassioned Communist who would rather die than see the Germans take over. The film involves an infamous scene in which Loren and her 12-year-old daughter are savagely assaulted and raped by Moroccan soldiers in a bombed-out church. Although De Sica has noble intentions – that is, the moment further establishes the utter desecration of morality during wartime – the scene feels cheap and exploitative. It is as if the daughter’s role in the plot is solely to be defiled, to suggest the far-reaching virus of impurity that comes alongside violence. Furthermore, it is so successfully disturbing that it distracts completely the narrative, shifting the audience’s attention from the terrors of war on a politically distanced community to a discussion about the resonant harm of sexual abuse.

The White Dove (1960)
June 8, 2011, 8:33 pm
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Director: Frantisek Vlácil

The first feature film of the overlooked Czech director Frantisek Vlácil, The White Dove premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 and would help usher in the Czech New Wave of the 1960s. Nearly wordless, the film is a simple allegory about two young children in Belgium and Prague who are united by a white dove. Flight is a motif that would follow Vlácil throughout much of his career – in Glass Skies, one of his short films, a young boy aspires to become a pilot. In Vlácil’s world, it quite often serves as an image of liberation – whether from sociopolitical bindings or inner anguish – and, although uplifting in The White Dove, it can be used to taunt his heroes, such as the doomed lovers-on-the-run in The Shadow of the Fern. Most memorable about The White Dove is its cinematography – much of the film is shot behind panes of glass or even a large fence that surrounds the boy’s apartment complex, juxtaposing the flightless bird with the child’s own isolation.

Never on Sunday (1960)
April 30, 2011, 10:39 pm
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Director: Jules Dassin

A modernization of the Pygmalion myth, Never on Sunday made a star out of the 40-year-old Melina Mercouri as the familiar “hooker with a heart of gold” sexpot. As lively as she is on screen, as the leading man Jules Dassin is completely unsuitable. Even in overplaying every gesture, he lacks magnetism, a deficiency that is only further amplified by the supreme charisma of Mercouri. A great director of dark thrillers, this type of territory (The Law also submerges the viewer into the specifics of a small European town) isn’t well suited for Dassin, who seems to have a need for plot convolutions if only to offer something interesting for his characters to do.