I’ve been watching more “recent” movies for a while, but I still dive into the old stuff – pre-19 May 1971, I mean, which is the day I was born – so let’s check some of them out!
Dinner at Eight (1933). MGM saw the success of Grand Hotel, with its “all-star cast,” and tried to replicate the formula with this … and they did, as it was another big success. Lionel and John Barrymore headline the cast, I suppose, but Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Edmund Lowe, Billie Burke, and Madge Evans are also strong, and there are several other actors who show up for a scene or two and have fun with it. It’s an odd movie, as it veers toward very goofy comedy quite a bit and then zags back to very dark drama, and it doesn’t hold together quite as well as it could. Burke wants to throw a dinner party for a visiting English lord and his lady, so she invites a bunch of people, all of whom turn out to be connected in more intimate ways than she thought. John Barrymore, for instance, is an aging movie star who’s schtupping Billie Burke’s teenage daughter, played by Evans … who of course is engaged to another man. Dressler is a washed-up actor who was once the object of Lionel Barrymore’s – Burke’s husband – affections, but now she just wants cash and ends up selling her stock in Lionel’s company. Interestingly for a movie like this, George Cukor and the writers (including Herman Mankiewicz, because of course) don’t ignore the Depression – Lionel’s shipping company is in dire straits, which is why Dressler selling the stock to outside interests bugs him, as he’s in danger of losing the family business. Beery is a nouveau riche businessman, doing well by, among other things, buying Lionel’s company out from under him. He’s trying to impress his low-class wife, Harlow, who of course wants to rise above her station and hang out with the snooty people. John Barrymore, meanwhile, does a marvelous job with his role, as we first see him as a confident, handsome dude who can still bang 19-year-olds, but as the movie progresses, he slowly devolves into a shadow of the star he once was. Ben Mankiewicz, who introduced the movie on TCM (which is where I saw it), noted that reviewers at the time didn’t think his portrayal was very sympathetic, but he mentioned that we can’t help but have sympathy for Barrymore now, given that he followed his character’s arc almost exactly and was dead less than a decade after this movie came out. This is a classic, of course, but it’s true that the tone shifts are pretty wild. It’s still nice to see such good actors tear into the script like they do!
Invisible Stripes (1939). This is a typical morality tale of the sort Hollywood used to crank out with regularity to counter their glamorization of gangsters and other unsavory characters (they still do this to a degree, but not as blatantly). The funny thing is that it stars George Raft (who was at the top of his game in 1939) and Humphrey Bogart as his friend, and soon it would be Bogart taking over the place of Raft in the Hollywood hierarchy (Raft famously turned down roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, both of which helped make Bogart a huge star; they also both starred in They Drive By Night in 1940, which was also before Bogart became a star). Raft and Bogart get out of prison on the same day, but Raft is determined to keep on the straight and narrow while Bogart thinks nothing of taking up crime again because he knows how hard it will be to do honest work. Raft finds this out, getting fired from jobs for various reasons and ending up as a “stockboy” at a department store. His brother, played by a ridiculously baby-faced William Holden, wants to turn to crime to provide a good life for his new wife, but Raft decides to go back to crime to funnel money to Holden so that he can keep his brother away from that life. Their two lives collide, of course, and Holden gets drawn into Raft’s life, and things go badly for some of the characters. The movie gets going once Raft returns to crime, but we have to get through his attempts to go straight, and there’s a lot of preachiness about the tough life of ex-convicts (which is not a bad theme for the movie; it’s just that they really hammer it home). There’s also the divide between rich and poor that is leaned on heavily, as Holden has been seduced by “the good life” and thinks turning to crime would be an ideal way to achieve it. The movie is a bit too unrealistic in places – the warden and Raft’s parole officers are utter paragons of virtue, which seems odd – but Raft, Bogart, and Holden are good actors, so they generally sell things pretty well. Flora Robson, playing Raft’s mother (despite being a year younger than he was!), does nice work as the long-suffering woman, but Jane Bryan as Holden’s fiancée/wife doesn’t have much to do. It’s a decent enough movie, but nothing too special.
Journey Into Fear (1943). Man, this is a brisk movie, coming in at about 68 minutes. Joseph Cotten works for an American munitions company on his way home (from the Middle East, I think) when he stops in Istanbul for the night but is whisked away by the Turkish representative of his company. The man takes him away from his wife and out to a club (Cotten says he doesn’t want to insult him, but man, he ditches his wife pretty danged easily!), where he, Cotten, finds himself in a magician’s trick where the magician is shot and killed, a bullet meant for Cotten, says Colonel Haki, the head of the Turkish secret police, where Cotten is taken after the incident. (Dang, that was a long sentence.) Haki believes Nazis are trying to kill Cotten because of what he knows about munitions, and while Cotten tries to tell him he’s not indispensable and the company will just send another man, Haki thinks the Germans just want to delay things, which Cotten’s death will do. Haki, I should point out, is played with considerable brio by Orson Welles, made up to look “Turkish” and wearing a glorious fur coat and hat. To keep Cotten safe, Haki puts him on a freighter to Batumi (which is in Georgia today but was Soviet back then) to get him out of the country, but the hitman hired by the Nazis is also on the boat, so Cotten has to stay safe and figure out if the hitman’s employer is on board as well. There are some interesting passengers – two performers from the club where Cotten went in Istanbul are on board, one of whom is played by the radiant Dolores del Rio; Agnes Moorehead (whom I never recognize, because young-ish Agnes Moorehead looks so much different than Bewitched Agnes Moorehead) is the wife of a man who pretended to be a Communist to annoy her and then discovered he believed in Communism; there’s a Turkish tobacco salesman and a German archaeologist, as well. Cotten does his befuddled and slightly vexed everyman thing well, as he always does (this was only his fifth movie, but he had that schtick down pat; I imagine it served him well in his sixth movie, Shadow of a Doubt, where he might be a serial killer), allowing things to happen to him until he finally takes matters into his own hands, but the movie speeds along so quickly it’s hard to get too invested in any of the characters, despite fine work from Cotten, del Rio, and Welles. As always with black and white movies made by competent people (the director of photography was Karl Struss, who had won an early Oscar, and the rumors were that Welles directed a lot of it, although he always insisted Norman Foster was the only director), there are a lot of cool shots using shadows, and the final confrontation in the rain outside of a hotel in Batumi is quite neat. It just feels like it could have been a bit longer, perhaps to show how pissed Cotten’s wife (played with cheery carelessness by Ruth Warrick) was to find him taken away and put on a boat with a sultry exotic dancer like del Rio!
Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). Another typical Hollywood picture, this time a romantic melodrama, seemingly built simply so Claudette Colbert could emote. Colbert is terrific, though, so who doesn’t like seeing her emote a bit? Orson Welles is back, as her first husband who is presumably killed in World War I (she gets an official telegram, so of course he must be dead!), and blandly attractive and all-around decent guy George Brent, playing her employer, moves in and marries her, providing a father for her unborn son. Moving on to 1939, Welles, recovered from his injuries but walking with a limp and sporting a magnificent beard, arrives in Baltimore as an Austrian refugee and goes to work for Brent (Welles has become a chemist and Brent needs chemists). When he’s invited over to their house, he knows Colbert, but it takes some time for her to recognize him (he looks very different, but of course, in the grand tradition of Old Hollywood, she hasn’t aged a day). Their son, who knows nothing of his real father, is planning to join the R.A.F. (the movie takes place in the months right after the Nazis invade Poland), but Colbert doesn’t want him to go, naturally. It’s a pretty good movie, as Colbert slowly figures out who Welles is, which tears her apart all over again, and Welles tries to explain to her why she needs to let him go without ever actually admitting who he is. Colbert is wonderful, of course, and Welles is superb as a dude who lets his eyes do most of his acting. Poor Welles – he was a gorgeous dude, but people were always making him old (he was only 30 when he made this film, 12 years younger than Colbert) or making him old and Turkish! This is also the first credited role (after two uncredited ones) of Natalie Wood, playing the daughter of the doctor who saved Welles’s life and whom he brings to America with him after the Nazis kill her parents. She’s dazzlingly blonde, but you can see in her face the woman she becomes. That’s kind of neat. Anyway, this is a pretty good movie, and I was a bit surprised to see the story and screenplay were both by women. Good for them!
Nocturne (1946). I love special effects in the old movies, because the makers had to be creative due to the lack of computers. The first shot of this movie is a gorgeous pan in, as we see a sleek house in Hollywood hills and a man inside sitting at a piano playing. The camera moves in until we’re right over the man’s shoulder. It’s breathtaking, especially when you think about the technical aspects of it. The house is clearly a matte painting, and the man at the piano is clearly a movie screened over the open space that’s supposed to be the inside of the house. As the camera moves in, there’s a second where it passes over the threshold, and we switch to “live” without a glitch, as the edit is pretty much invisible. Welles did this kind of thing most famously in Citizen Kane, but it’s not like anyone else couldn’t do it, and it’s very cool to see. The man at the piano is a lothario composer who’s breaking up with his latest conquest, and as he’s talking to her (we see her only in shadows), he’s shot and killed. George Raft (hey, it’s George Raft again!) shows up the next morning at one of the police detectives investigating the case, but the coroner returns a verdict of suicide and Raft is ordered off the case. Like the best 1980s cop, however, he sticks to it because something is bugging him about it, although he can’t figure out how it could be murder. He finds Lynn Bari, a recent girlfriend of the composer’s, but she gives him an alibi (which he manages to destroy pretty easily, but he still can’t prove she did it). He starts falling for Bari, of course, but he still doesn’t trust her all the way. Her sister and the piano player at the club where the sister sings are suspicious, but again, Raft can’t prove anything. Maybe the composer’s housekeeper (a superb Myrna Dell in a smaller role) might have something to do with it! This is a nice potboiler, as Raft tries to figure out if it was even murder and who could have done it. Raft is always solid, and while Bari isn’t quite as good as some more famous femme fatales, she’s pretty good. It’s kind of fun to see a stereotypical 1980s plot line – the cop who gets suspended but still solves the crime – playing out in the 1940s. There’s nothing new under the sun!
Betrayed (1954). Clark Gable stars as a Dutch resistance fighter during World War II who, once he gets to England, has to send a spy back into Holland, so he chooses Lana Turner even though he and the British have suspicions about her loyalty. She’s supposed to find “The Scarf,” another resistance fighter (played by Victor Mature) and help clear the way for the Allied invasion. Of course Gable falls in love with Turner before she leaves England, and of course there’s a traitor in the Dutch resistance and all signs point to Turner, and of course Gable has to head over to the Netherlands to figure out what’s what! It’s not a very good movie, unfortunately – it’s mildly entertaining, but it’s far too simplistic, even for the Fifties. I mean, love conquers all, so it’s probably not Turner as the German spy, and the movie doesn’t do a terribly good job of making her look guilty – it’s basically, “Well, we don’t trust the woman.” Gable, who was almost exactly 20 years older than Turner, criticizes her for marrying a much older man, not too long before mackin’ on her, which is fun. Perhaps Gable isn’t supposed to be playing a 50-something-year-old man, but come on, let’s be serious – Hollywood magic, which made almost every actor from the 1930s to the 1960s look like they were about 35 years old, no matter what their real age, could only go so far! It was filmed partly on location, so that’s always fun, but overall, it’s just not that great a flick. Although it kept bugging me where I had seen Wilfrid Hyde-White before, and then I remembered: he was frickin’ Dr. Goodfellow in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century! Who could forget him leering at Erin Gray? Hyde-White, by the way, was two years younger than Gable, but in this movie, he looks just as old as he did 25 years later in Buck Rogers. Some people just get old and stay old!
The Vikings (1958). The Vikings is a fun action drama that we should probably not take very seriously as a historical document, as it’s a bit laughable, even for the time period, when people did not think very highly of many people of the past. Orson Welles’s narration at the beginning is groan-inducing, as he speaks of the Vikings fearing the edge of the flat earth when it’s pretty clear the Vikings knew the earth was round. Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine, who play Vikings, sound like they just walked off the set of a gangster movie set in New York, and Kirk Douglas and Janet Leigh are a bit better mainly because they don’t have noticeable accents, but they still sound like 1950s white Americans (which isn’t really that big a problem, it’s just kind of funny how actors of the era didn’t even try to have an accent). The attitude toward rape is, as you might expect, regressive, as Borgnine rapes Tony Curtis’s mother in the very beginning and she seems awfully blasé about it, while Douglas talks a whole hell of a lot about taking Janet Leigh against her will and even gets angry at her because she doesn’t resist later in the movie (which turns out to be a good strategy, as he can’t get it up, it seems, unless he’s raping someone). But we have to remember that this was made in the 1950s and it’s about the (probably) 9th century, so we just have to deal with it. Leigh actually turns out to be a decent character, although she’s largely the damsel in distress, and Curtis and Douglas are, not surprisingly, quite good as half brothers who also hate each other. This is about when Douglas hit his attractiveness peak, and he’s dazzling in the movie, even after his eye gets scratched out by a hawk. It’s a beautiful movie in general, as Richard Fleischer (who also directed the movie below this, which I watched first) took everyone on location to Norway, and it was a wise decision. While a good deal of this is silly historically, it still looks great, and the fighting is pretty keen. It’s a fun movie to watch, but certainly not the best thing any of the actors ever did.
Compulsion (1959). This is a disappointing movie, unfortunately, probably because it was made in 1959 and director Richard Fleischer (who a decade later made The Boston Strangler, which I watched a while ago) couldn’t be quite as obvious as he wanted to be and didn’t have the grasp of subtlety that he might have needed. It’s clear that Straus and Steiner – Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell – are at least somewhat in love with each other (Steiner more than Straus, it seems), but Fleischer can’t make that obvious and he never really gets at it subtly, so the two young men – who certainly ARE NOT Leopold and Loeb – come off as a bit weird. I mean, yes, they killed a kid, so they’re already weird, but Fleischer never really gets to their motives, and one of those was probably love. There’s not even the whole “uber-mensch” thing that Leopold and Loeb seemed to be dabbling in, where they believed they could kill because they were simply better than everyone – Stockwell goes into it a tiny bit, but not very much at all. Of course, in 1959 we couldn’t see the dead kid, and while I don’t want gore just because we can see gore, this movie really shies away from the crime, almost as if Fleischer is very pearl-clutchy himself about it. I haven’t seen Rope in years, but I seem to recall that it was better and digging into the twisted motives of Leopold and Loeb. Maybe I’m wrong. I do know that Swoon, the brilliant 1992 movie by Tom Kalin, really leans into their homosexuality, but then again, it was made in 1992. Anyway, Stockwell is quite good, and it seems like he’s really the mastermind, but again, Fleischer doesn’t explore that, allowing Dillman as the extrovert to be the driver of the murder and Stockwell as the nerd to be the quasi-inept accomplice, and it just feels like there’s a more interesting movie inside this one in which Stockwell is the manipulative alpha. E.G. Marshall is on hand as the district attorney, and Orson Welles steals the show as the defense attorney, as the movie screeches to a halt toward the end so Welles can speak for several minutes about the barbarity of the death penalty (it could have been worse; in the actual trial Clarence Darrow spoke for TWELVE HOURS about the barbarity of the death penalty). Again, I’ll point out something about Welles – he was only 45 at the time, but he was playing someone 20 years older, so he was made to look older, almost exactly like he was in Touch of Evil the year before, and he wasn’t as fat as he was in either movie, but later in life he looked like the roles he had played for so long that everyone just thought he had been fat forever. Hollywood sure chewed him up and spat him out, didn’t it? Anyway, this isn’t that great. It’s fine, but there’s a far more interesting movie inside it, and it was made twice – once by Hitchcock, and once in 1992!
Once a Thief (1965). This movie begins with the most insane drum solo you’ve ever heard (see below), which is stopped silent a few places so that random people can talk about drugs, “dykes,” and ennui, and then that leads to a robbery in Chinatown (the movie is set in San Francisco) that ends with a murder, and then it leads to an obsessed cop (Van Heflin) who thinks a man who shot him during a robbery several years ago is involved. Said man is Italian immigrant Eddie Pedak, played by Alain Delon in his first American role, and he’s been working for years to escape his past, but Heflin keeps rousting him for presumed crimes, which causes him to lose the job he happens to have at the time (kind of like George Raft 26 years earlier!). Delon is married to Ann-Margret (how their daughter doesn’t strike everyone blind because, being the child of Delon and Ann-Margret, her beauty is too much for them to handle is beyond me), and he’s struggling to buy a boat to become an independent fisherman, so of course when his criminal brother and his cronies show up with a sweet job, he eventually gives in and joins them. Said brother is played by Jack Palance, of all people, exuding his usual icy menace but who genuinely loves his brother, which blinds him to betrayals from other parties. (Palance is perfectly fine in this movie, but he’s wildly miscast – he’s 16 years older than Delon, they look nothing alike, and his bad Italian accent comes and goes, but it’s Palance, so it’s still pretty fun watching him do his thing.) There are some silly things in the movie – Heflin thinks Delon is involved in the murder because the killer wore a sheepskin coat, but Delon never thinks of wearing something different – and some unfortunately regressive things – Ann-Margret has to go to work, but Delon is too manly for that and he drags her home and slaps her a few times, which causes her to apologize to him – but overall, it’s a nifty heist movie. The black and white is superb, too – there’s a two-shot where Delon is leaving to go to the robbery, and he’s descending the steps into darkness, as if he’s heading into Hell, while Ann-Margret stands on the landing above him, with a gauzy angelic aura around her, and it wouldn’t work as well in color as it does in black and white. It’s not a great movie, but it is pretty good, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it.
Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). Otto Preminger is most famous for Anatomy of a Murder, I would assume, but he did make some other neat movies, including this one, which ends somewhat limply but is still a darned good thriller. Carol Lynley plays a woman who has just arrived in England from the States, and she drops her child, Bunny, off at her new school, but she’s late getting there, so classes have already started. She was told to leave Bunny in the “First Day Room,” and the cook at the school says she’ll look after the girl for a few minutes until the classes change, at which time the teacher will get her. Later, when Lynley goes to pick up her daughter, she’s gone, and no one at the school has seen her. Lynley’s brother, Keir Dullea, calls the police, and Superintendent Laurence Olivier takes over the case. Soon Olivier is beginning to wonder if Bunny even exists – Lynley has no photographs of her, she had a cold for the past few days (they’ve been in the country about a week), so Lynley hadn’t let her outside, and all of Bunny’s stuff from their new flat is gone, too, which points to burglary but might point to her not existing, either. Dullea mentions that Lynley had an imaginary friend, also named Bunny, when she was a child, and Olivier suspects that he’s going along with Lynley’s delusions to spare her feelings. And Noël Coward shows up as Lynley’s super-creepy landlord, showing her a fertility mask he got in Ghana and talking about his “melodious” voice and showing the cops his whip that he says belonged to the Marquis de Sade. It’s a pretty keen thriller, because it’s unclear what’s really going on – is Lynley delusional, did the weird old lady in the school’s attic take Bunny, is Lynley’s brother also delusional, is the landlord involved, are Lynley and Dullea both playing the cops for some reason, and why did Preminger feature the Zombies so much? The band is on a television show in a pub at one point, and later a janitor is listening to the radio playing one of their songs. It’s weird. Anyway, about 80 minutes in, things begin to clear up a bit, and while the ending is pretty tense, it reaches a point where the movie almost just ends, as if Preminger ran out of film. I know that prior to the 1980s, movies often ended abruptly, but it seems like this could have gone for five more minutes to clear up a few things. Other than that, it’s a pretty keen movie, and like Once a Thief, Preminger’s use of black and white heightens the tension quite nicely. Olivier is terrific as usual, and Lynley and Dullea really do well (although apparently Coward thought Dullea was a bad actor, but what the hell does he know anyway?). Kubrick didn’t ask Dullea to audition for 2001 because he saw this movie and just offered him the part. So good for Dullea!
Jeez, four movies with Orson Welles in them (if you count his narration in The Vikings). I like Welles a lot, but that’s just coincidence, really. Anyway, those are the older movies I’ve watched recently. There are still plenty more on my DVR!