If you’re looking for films from this century, you won’t find much from my second half of June 2016 list, but I hope you’ll find some to consider (and maybe one to avoid).
Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937) Louis King
Mill Creek Crime Wave 50 Movie Megapack (1:04)
The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) William Nigh
Mill Creek Crime Wave 50 Movie Megapack (1:08)
Both films previously discussed here
The House on 92nd Street (1945) Henry Hathaway
20th Century Fox DVD (1:28)
Previously discussed here
Spotlight (2015) Tom McCarthy
Universal DVD – library (2:08)
Although I’ve only seen one other film by Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, 2007), his track record is remarkably good: The Station Agent (2003), Win Win (2011) and The Cobbler (2014), a film Leonard Maltin praised, but lamented that almost no one saw. (I must see it soon.)
But plenty of people saw Spotlight. Or if they haven’t, they should. The film is a celebration of journalism, a profession that almost everyone who has ever been quoted (or rather misquoted) in a newspaper at some point reviles, at least to some degree. Watching Spotlight almost makes you want to go to journalism school or at least to do some investigative freelance work.
The story is familiar, one whose ending we already know: the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal exposed the Boston Globe in 2002. The film owes much to two other works about journalism, All the President’s Men (1976) to a large degree, and Zodiac (2007) to a lesser degree. Both films contain a far different level of suspense than Spotlight. That’s not to say Spotlight doesn’t contain suspense; it certainly does, but in a far more subdued and subtle way.
The cast is exceptional and if Oscars were presented for Best Ensemble Cast, this group would win hands-down. We’ve got Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, and John Slattery, and while none of them can be considered the “lead” in the film, taken as a unit, they’re impressive. So is the film.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Howard Hawks
Criterion Blu-ray (2:01)
You sometimes hear this film discussed in conversations of great films from Hollywood’s Golden Year of 1939, but it’s rarely mentioned in most peoples’ personal favorites. It wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (10 films were nominated in those days) and wasn’t one of the top grossing films of 1939, yet it contains a power and charm – even in the midst of literal and thematic darkness – that makes it unforgettable.
Cary Grant plays Geoff Carter, a pilot and manager of a South American airmail service called Barranca Airways. An entertainer named Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) arrives in town and is immediately attracted to Carter until she learns how focused he is on his business and – to her – heartless towards his pilots.
I could go on about the greatness of the film, but it’s best left up to you to discover. I’m a big fan of Howard Hawks, who made just about every kind of film you can think of, and he’s certainly in his element here. The aerial shots are still impressive today and Grant is at the top of his game. The film is also Rita Hayworth’s first major screen appearance.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) John Farrow
Night Has a Thousand Eyes is something of a guilty pleasure. I know that if I took the time to really examine the plot, I’d probably discover that it’s not a very good film, but I don’t care: I was entertained… No, I was enraptured by the story of charlatan stage mentalist (Edward G. Robinson) whose powers of insight into the future disturb him so much that he gives up his career to live in anonymity. Robinson, as usual, is excellent, although it’s pretty much a one-trick performance (no pun intended). Although their roles are written as somewhat one-dimensional, Gail Russell, John Lund and William Demarest are also fun to watch. This one won’t be for everyone, but I really dig it.
Alice in the Cities (1974) Wim Wenders
Criterion Blu-ray, from Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy (1:50)
It’s almost impossible for me not to think of Paris, Texas (1984) while watching Alice in the Cities, although Wenders directed Alice first, ten years earlier. Both films contain similar unmistakable themes, but each is also unique, like cousins who grew up in different parts of the country.
Rüdiger Vogler (who has nearly 200 acting credits on IMDB) plays Phil Winter, a German journalist in America working on a story. Phil is fascinated by America, but can’t quite capture what he wants to say in words, but rather Polaroid snapshots (which really pisses off his editor). Attempting to fly home, he gets stuck with a nine-year-old girl named Alice (Yella Rottländer) after meeting her and her mother (Lisa Kreuzer) at a New York airport. The mother gives Phil the slip and leaves him with Alice. After arriving in Germany, Alice tells Phil that if they can find her grandmother’s house, he can drop her off there, but Alice can’t remember her grandmother’s name or the name of the city she lives in. All she has is an old photograph of her grandmother’s house. This unusual road picture is subdued, slowly unfolding into something of a character study of both Phil and Alice, yet contains a richness that goes far beyond a typical character study.
Criss Cross (1949) Robert Siodmak (2x)
Universal DVD (1:28)
I love film noir, and certainly more people out there have seen more noir than I have, but in my mind, nothing captures the essence of film noir more than Criss Cross. At the least, it’s one of the most tragic films in the noir canon. Burt Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, a man who returns to LA after a two-year absence, yearning for his former lover Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). He finds her, all right, but also finds she’s married a low-life gangster named Slim (Dan Duryea). I won’t tell you any more about Steve’s plan to win her back and at the same time ruin Slim, but I will say that Steve Thompson has to be the biggest chump role of Lancaster’s career. The guy’s just not too bright, which was the type of character Lancaster rarely played. But remember, this is film noir. All bets are off. This one’s rightfully regarded as a noir classic.
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) Norman Foster
Unfortunately, the best thing about Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is its title. Burt Lancaster plus Joan Fontaine equals practically no chemistry whatsoever. The film starts off well with Lancaster playing Canadian war veteran Bill Saunders, a man with anger issues suffered after doing two years in a German POW camp. Saunders accidentally kills a man, a scene that was witnessed by a slimy Brit named Harry Carter (Robert Newton, who practically owns the film) who tries to blackmail Saunders. After this promising opening, the film disappoints with each passing minute with Joan Fontaine playing a medical assistant who should have nothing to do with Saunders if she had any sense. More romance than thriller, this one goes nowhere despite a good musical score from Miklos Rozsa.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) Robert Florey
Universal DVD from The Bela Lugosi Collection (1:01)
Director Robert Florey was originally assigned to direct Frankenstein (1931) and even filmed a screen test with Bela Lugosi as the monster, but Universal rerouted Florey to Murders in the Rue Morgue instead. You can’t help but wonder “What if” Florey had been kept on Frankenstein…
Yet Florey’s version of the Edgar Allan Poe story is at times very impressive: atmospheric, dark (with touches of comedy), and for its time, probably quite frightening. It’s a short film, coming in a just over an hour, and while I haven’t clocked the amount of screen time given to Lugosi, I wish there had been more of him.
Downhill Racer (1969) Michael Ritchie
Criterion DVD – library (1:41)
Redford is effective as a quiet, but arrogant downhill skier in one of the disillusionment/hero/anti-hero films of the late 60s. Understated (and generally all the stronger for it) and with some terrific camera work, the film just never connected with me, although Gene Hackman as the American ski coach is excellent. (But then again, when is he not?)
99 River Street (1953) Phil Karlson (2x)
Kino Lorber Blu-ray (1:23)
Although I watched this film in March 2015, I had to get the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray, since it contains a fabulous Eddie Muller commentary. Listening to Muller is like attending Film Noir University; the guy knows practically everything there is to know about film noir and if he doesn’t know it, you don’t need it. Even for the casual noir fan, this is a must-buy.
That’s all for the second half of June. Tell me what you saw, good or bad.