The movies are really piling up in February, hence some shorter reviews for films that really deserve more coverage. Some of these I plan to return to later, but for now, I hope the following mini-reviews will suffice. (And if you missed Part I, this will get you caught up.)
Red-Headed Woman (1932) Jack Conway
Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 1 DVD (1:19)
If you’ve ever heard the name Jean Harlow spoken in tones of adoration and/or brazen desire and never knew what all the fuss was about, look no further than Red-Headed Woman. Harlow plays a young woman named Lil Andrews, a woman who knows what she wants (the good life) and won’t take no for an answer. She sets her sights on her wealthy (and married) employer Bill Legendre (Chester Morris) with no apologies or subtleties whatsoever. Yet once she has both him and the good life, she discovers that social acceptance is harder to manipulate than Bill was.
Harlow must’ve absolutely thrived in the Pre-Code era. Her sexuality and allure are obvious and undeniable. After the Hays Code, you’d never see adultery depicted this blatantly until the late 1960s. Yet Red-Headed Woman is bold enough to mix adultery with comedy and for the most part, it succeeds. Critic Ken Hanke calls the film “a kind of trash masterpiece.”
Without Warning! (1952) Arnold Laven
Dark Sky Films DVD – interlibrary loan (1:15)
Previously discussed here
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) Robert Butler
Disney DVD (1:31)
I probably saw every Disney movie released between 1966 and 1972 and I know I saw all the Kurt Russell pictures from those years. He was the nice kid with a touch of attitude who was the focus of attention (and usually involved in some type of shenanigans) in three movies set in Medfield College where his character Dexter Riley was a student. (Those films are this one, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t , and The Strongest Man in the World .) I was so used to seeing Russell in Disney roles that I can clearly remember the shock to the system that occurred when I saw him as Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).
In fact, I plan to do a Kurt Russell Child Actor/Adult Actor double feature soon with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Escape from New York, so I’ll save the rest of this review until then.
A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century Fox DVD (1:43)
A woman (whose voice we hear off-screen) sends a single letter addressed to three women, Deborah (Jeanne Crain, right), Rita (Ann Sothern, left) and Lora Mae (Linda Darnell, center), informing them that she has skipped town with one of their husbands. This is a wonderful film that you must see, one that balances drama, melodrama, suspense, comedy, and social commentary with surprising wit and effectiveness. It deserves far more space than I’m giving it here, but do watch it. As impressive as the actresses are, the men do an admirable job as well, featuring Kirk Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, and Paul Douglas. (And don’t miss an early performance by Thelma Ritter.)
Thief (1981) Michael Mann
James Caan (in arguably his finest performance) plays Frank, a professional thief (primarily a safecracker) who decides to plan for his future with a beautiful waitress named Jessie (Tuesday Weld), with whom he wants to adopt a child. (There’s a great moment in the film after a meeting for the adoption that oesn’t go as planned. An even better moment occurs early in the film when Frank tells Jessie what he does for a living. It may be Caan’s greatest moment as a film actor.) Things get complicated – and deadly – when Frank decides to sign on with a top crime boss in order to make bigger scores. Mann’s first feature film is practically the gold standard for modern-day crime films. Thief has been imitated, copied, and ripped off for years and for good reason. I have a few quibbles with the ending, but overall the film is excellent.
San Quentin (1937) Lloyd Bacon
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:10)
A former Army officer named Jameson (Pat O’Brien, right) beats out a long-time guard (Barton MacLane) for the job of Captain of the Guard position at San Quentin prison where a criminal named Joe (Humphrey Bogart, left) has landed after a robbery gone bad. Things get a little tricky when Jameson expresses an interest in Joe’s sister May (Ann Sheridan).
San Quentin boasts an impressive cast, but is weighed down by some pretty serious moralizing and comedic touches that run a little too long. Bogart’s really not onscreen that much, but it’s a film worth watching, especially for Sheridan.
Rocco and His Brothers (1960) Luchino Visconti
Eureka! Masters of Cinema Blu-ray (UK, Region B) (2:58)
(This was one of my Blind Spot films from 2016 that I’m just getting to. I’ll have much more to say about it in an upcoming post.)
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that this is my first Visconti film, but I’m so glad I finally saw it. Rocco and His Brothers is a tremendous epic drama of a family from Luciana (Southern Italy) moving to Milano (Northern Italy). The family centers around the widow Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) and her five sons as they try to integrate themselves into their new lives. At first the film seems to be the saga of a family desperate for a new and better life, but it turns into something else. This film deserves an extended review, one that I’m unprepared to give just now. If you have a chance to see it, do so. All of the performances are excellent, especially French superstar Alain Delon as Rocco. Again, more on this film later. It’s a powerhouse. (A domestic release is available only on DVD from Image Entertainment and is a bit pricey at $30. Another reason to buy a region-free Blu-ray player for the Eureka! Masters of Cinema Region B Blu-ray.)
The Steel Trap (1952) Andrew L. Stone
Warner Archive DVD (1:25)
Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright are back together again, not as the uncle and niece they played in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). This time they’re husband and wife. (I’m guessing that’s why Wright’s hair was dyed blonde for The Steel Trap. Of course this film was made nine years after the Hitchcock film.)
Cotten plays Jim Osborne, an assistant bank manager for an L.A. bank who longs to steal money from the bank and start a new life with his wife and family abroad. He discovers that Brazil has no extradition treaty with the U.S., so he kicks his plan into high gear. The suspense is quite good in a picture whose entertainment value is solid, despite the improbability of the plot.
The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) Juan José Campanella
DVD – library (2:09)
Another film that I’ll have to expound on later. I’ve been on a Ricardo Darín kick lately, this being the third film I’ve seen him in. From what I’ve heard, you should avoid the 2015 American remake of the same name and go straight to the original Argentine version.
Briefly, Darín plays Benjamín Espósito, a judiciary employee who has started his first novel, drawing as his inspiration an unsolved rape/murder case he worked on 25 years previously with Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Again, I plan to see this wonderful film again and comment further on all its strengths. Plain and simple, this is rock-solid cinematic storytelling of a very high order, the kind of films you wish Hollywood could make more often (or at all). Again, more on this one later, but in the meantime, see it.
Ransom for a Dead Man (TV 1971) Richard Irving
Columbo Season One DVD (1:38)
A talented attorney named Leslie Williams (Lee Grant) murders her husband by faking a kidnapping and keeping the ransom for herself. Of course Columbo is there to make sure she doesn’t get away with it.
I don’t really know my Columbo history, but I believe this is the second pilot for the NBC Mystery Movie that I discussed briefly last time. I’m not certain why this film and the first pilot Prescription: Murder are spaced three years apart. Ransom for a Dead Man seems a weaker effort than the first with Falk not really getting to do much for the first two-thirds of the film (other than provide comic relief), yet we can see the character developing from the first film in which he slips into a very non-Columbo-like rant near that film’s end.
The plot in Ransom seems far too silly for such an otherwise intelligent character as Leslie Williams. The elements that bind everything together are pretty flimsy, but it’s still a fun venture. I was somewhat shocked to see Timothy Carey as a waiter in a diner, but online friends tell me he makes at least two other appearances in the series.
There’s more coming in February. Stay tuned!
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