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.

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Mrs. Miniver (1942)
March 5, 2016, 4:14 pm
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Director: William Wyler
5 Stars
Mrs. MiniverPerhaps Hollywood’s best example of World War II propaganda, Mrs. Miniver is a beautifully crafted sentimental melodrama, complete with a final act sermon that works as a powerful rally in support of the war effort. Director William Wyler has become unfashionable in some circles over the years, but his one-two punch of Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives shows Hollywood studio spectacles at not only their peak artistry, but at their most personal. The desire to read the transition in the outlook of the two pictures from an autobiographical standpoint is irresistible, but barring that they exist themselves as amazing artifacts that demonstrate just what the war did to the average American citizen in just four years time. Mrs. Miniver, though ultimately more optimistic, also permeates with the same feeling of doom–watch the dinner table scene in which Vin (Richard Ney) proposes to Carol (Teresa Wright) just before being called away to war. Wyler takes an extra moment to pause on the empty, set dinner table, a melancholic image of a traditional household dynamic gone to ruins. The sequence later in the film where the family attempts to maintain their rituals while taking refuge in an Anderson shelter is, if not particularly subtle, hugely powerful in its mise en scene and the use of sound. Wyler’s penchant for deep focus cinematography is limited by the close confines of the shelter, resulting in his actors images overlapping each other, packing each plane of the space with either a body or a prop that carries the significance of a family relic. In retrospect, Mrs. Miniver’s very classicism might seem old hat coming just a year after Orson Welles’ breakthrough with Citizen Kane, but if Welles broke the rules of Hollywood in order to reconstruct a new cinema, Wyler in this period was a master of the classical form, having an uncanny ability to know just how long to hold a certain shot or how to organize the frame for maximum emotional effect.



The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
January 31, 2016, 11:43 pm
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Director: William Wyler
5 Stars
The Best Years of Our LivesIn the opening scene of The Best Years of Our Lives, returning veterans fly above Boone City and comment on what it is like to look at their hometown from a bird’s eye view. Even when the men aren’t surveying a field full of bombers, the tension is clear–these men converse about how different things look from above, making literal the fact that their homes and community have become only vaguely recognizable. A rare Hollywood prestige picture that is able to overcome being saddled with that burden, The Best Years of Our Lives is as empathetic as the movies get–not only are these characters wrought with their fragilities foregrounded, but they show remarkable love for one another as they try to adjust back to living in a world that has become impossible to return to. One of the most striking shots of the film involves a disheveled Fredric March holding a photograph of his younger self and surveying the physical differences in the mirror. The image carries a certain fascination for confronting celebrity so directly (and admitting that a famed actor now looks considerably older), but there’s more to it than that. Superficially, it considers the effects of aging, but it also suggests a transition in cinema itself. March’s portrait (taken sometime in the 1930s) reflects the actor at the height of his fame, during an era when Hollywood was defined by the escapist epics, screwball comedies, and genre pictures that he was known for. Now, audiences are confronted with the actor as a confused, chronically depressed veteran in a grimly realistic drama. The concerns of audiences and filmmakers had indeed changed, and this one simple image uses March’s performance, his filmic image, and the weight of the picture’s consideration of veterans as a means of remarking on the ungodly difference that a decade had made in our nation’s history.



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.



Dead End (1937)
July 24, 2012, 5:47 am
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Director: William Wyler

When the pre-Code era came to its end in 1934, so too came the end of the romantic portrayal of the gangster. Films like Scarface, The Public Enemy, and Little Caesar were shortly replaced with ‘G’ Men, which turned the law enforcement officers into the heroes. In 1937, William Wyler’s Dead End marked the next significant turn in the American gangster ethos, starting a trend of films that focused on youth delinquency, crime prevention, and the perils of poverty. It was the picture which first introduced film-going audiences to the Dead End Kids – later dubbed the East Side Kids, the Little Tough Guys, and, most prolifically, the Bowery Boys – a group of young actors from New York who reprised their roles from Sidney Kingsley’s play. Under the director/producer team of William Wyler and Samuel Goldwyn, Dead End is a modestly powerful saga that contrasts the lives of two former hooligans of the slum; Humphrey Bogart, who continued a life of crime; and Joel McCrea, who became honest. McCrea, the everyman, is forgettable, but Bogart’s psychologically complex gangster is one of the best of his early performances, conveying a tragic sense of regret and bitterness having lost the favor of his mother and discovering that his ex-girlfriend has become a prostitute. Art director Richard Day’s set is memorable, establishing a sense of isolation with the thin alleyways, and famed cinematographer Gregg Toland contributes some terrific visuals, including a highly stylized shoot-out with dense fog and dramatic lighting.



These Three (1936)
July 24, 2012, 5:40 am
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Director: William Wyler

William Wyler’s These Three was the first adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, a play about the headmistresses of an all-girl boarding school being labeled lesbians by a bitter student. This being 1936, the picture is unsurprisingly heterosexual, with Hellman herself adapting the story to better suit the standards of the Production Code. Director William Wyler, not yet the commodity that he would be in the late thirties and into the sixties, began his collaboration with producer Samuel Goldwyn on the project, which became a partnership that would last nine films (including several of Wyler’s most beloved: The Best Years of Our Lives, The Little Foxes). Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon were cast along with Joel McCrea, much to the chagrin of Wyler, who had asked for Leslie Howard. Talented as the two women were, it was the Oscar-nominated thirteen-year-old Bonita Granville who stole the bulk of the acclaim with her captivating performance as the brat whose false accusation of an affair ruins the reputations of the headmistresses. Her scenes with fellow child actress Marcia Mae Jones are surprisingly intense, with her threatening manipulations containing a believable menace. Wyler was often touted as a perfectionist, and though his best work was to come, the picture shows touches of his brilliance – in the scene in which Hopkins confesses her love for Oberon’s husband-to-be, for example, Wyler shoots Hopkins from over-the-shoulder on a staircase, moving the audience’s focus exclusively to Oberon’s reaction rather than the confession itself.