Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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High Sierra form 1941 with Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Henry Travers and Joan Leslie

There's a lot of moral ambiguity going on beneath the code-approved wrapping of this gangster picture cum film noir where you end up kinda rooting for the wrong people at times.

Bogart, serving a life sentence, is sprung from jail by a governor's pardon obtained by a bribe paid by a gang leader who gets Bogie freed so that he can mastermind a heist for him. Pause on that corruption at a high level for a moment; a corruption that is not later "fixed" by the Motion Picture Production Code. It is never exposed and the governor suffers no consequences.

Bogie, now freed and on his way to the heist job on the west coast, befriends a poor family whose one daughter, Joan Leslie, has a club foot. His kindness to the family and girl reveals that Bogie has a mixed-up morality that can be cold and ruthless at times, but also kind and caring.

Once out west, Bogart connects with the new gang - amateurs that he tries to mold into professionals while he meets hanger-on-girl Ida Lupino, whose horrible family life has led her to become, essentially, a gangster groupie. Here again, we see Bogie the antihero as a caring man who shows kindness to Lupino. And Lupino, like a beaten dog, responds with love and devotion to the modest scraps of decency Bogie throws her way.

But Bogie's real affections are reserved for club-footed Leslie who seems to represent for Bogart the innocence of his youth and the respectability society will no longer offer him. With the movie's two paths - a crime caper and a love triangle - set, we shift to the jewelry heist part of the story, which goes horribly wrong as we see the ruthless side of Bogie when he shoots innocent people who get in the way.

From here, it's all a painful unravel of the few hopes for a normal life Bogie and Lupino (she sticks to him like glue) have. After paying for a surgery to fix Leslie's foot, Bogart asks her to marry him, but she rejects him, at first nicely, and then, as he pushes, not so nicely.

With that dream crushed, the law closing in and Lupino still around, Bogart ships Lupino, who is kinda sorta not guilty (other than that she knew the heist was being planned), ahead to Vegas so that he can try to escape the law and get the money from the stolen jewels on his own.

But it's the 1940s and even antiheroes have to pay for their sins, so (spoiler alert) in a well-filmed, tense final scene, Bogie, with a rifle and plenty of ammo, attempts to hold off the police in the Sierra Mountains. During the standoff, Lupino appears pleading for Bogie's life. But in a final twist of irony, as Bogie goes to pick up his and Lupino's dog - who Lupino brought with her and who has run up to Bogie's redoubt - Bogie exposes himself enough to be shot.

The man is a ruthless killer; a hardened criminal foreshadowing a Tarantino character by decades as he sees crime and even murder as just part of his job. But he can also be kind, wistful and compassionate, and darn it, half the time you are rooting for him. Kudos to writers John Huston and W.R. Burnett and director Raoul Walsh for creating a morally complex character and story tucked inside the tightly circumscribed world of the Motion Picture Production Code.
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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Rope from 1948 with John Dall, James Stewart and Farley Granger

The reason why filming a theatrical play and showing it on TV doesn't work is, well, I don't really know why, but it doesn't as evidenced by this experimental effort by master director Alfred Hitchcock. Shot in one setting - an expensive NYC apartment (the skylight-ish windows are incredible) - this theatrical-play-like movie is left with only dialogue and characters to engage you. While both have their moments, they are not consistent enough to prop up this short, but surprisingly slow-moving, movie.

Two young, wealthy, upper-class, well-educated and (it's only implied, but we get it) gay men, Dall and Granger, kill by strangulation (using the titular "rope") a former classmate and friend. They commit this murder simply to test out their warped version of one of their former college professor's theories that intellectually superior people should not be restrained by the same moral and legal code as the benighted.

I get the Nietzsche superman concept at work and I know it oddly titillates many philosophers - and absorbs a lot of their intellectual bandwidth - but twisting it into justifiable murder for sport is stupid, boring and morally repugnant to those of us less cerebrally inclined; you know, us benighted folks who don't kill for intellectual exercise.

After the opening murder, these two sociopaths host a party with their dead friend's body stuffed in a trunk being used as a buffet for the soiree's food. Following that ten minutes of set up, the rest of the movie is about an hour of a boring party where we learn about all the interconnections between the victim's former friends, while concern grows over the friend's failure to appear at the party. This and some tedious side stories happen while we watch Dall luxuriate in his "achievement," as Granger welters in guilt and fear over being caught.

It's only when party guest and the inspiration for the murder, the boys' former professor, James Stewart, starts to get suspicious that some real tension builds. There's even a pretty good scene toward the end where Stewart realizes what these two nutcases have done and exposes their crime, but it's not enough to save this torpid effort.

I believe I read at some point that this movie was inspired by the true story of two young men, Leopold and Loeb, who did commit a murder just to see if they could get away with it. Now, a movie version of that story - with its extensive police search for the killers that hinged on one obscure clue - would have been a much more interesting movie.

But credit to Hitchcock for this attempt, flawed as it is, and for learning from it to use more of what movies allow a director to do when he made a film version of the play Dial M for Murder a few years later.
 
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eagle2250

Connoisseur/Curmudgeon Emeritus - Moderator
View attachment 52841
Rope from 1948 with John Dall, James Stewart and Farley Granger

The reason why filming a theatrical play and showing it on TV doesn't work is, well, I don't really know why, but it doesn't as evidenced by this experimental effort by master director Alfred Hitchcock. Shot in one setting - an expensive NYC apartment (the skylight-ish windows are incredible) - this theatrical-play-like movie is left with only dialogue and characters to engage you. While both have their moments, they are not consistent enough to prop up this short, but surprisingly slow-moving, movie.

Two young, wealthy, upper-class, well-educated and (it's only implied, but we get it) gay men, Dall and Granger, kill by strangulation (using the titular "rope") a former classmate and friend. They commit this murder simply to test out their warped version of one of their former college professor's theories that intellectually superior people should not be restrained by the same moral and legal code as the benighted.

I get the Nietzsche superman concept at work and I know it oddly titillates many philosophers - and absorbs a lot of their intellectual bandwidth - but twisting it into justifiable murder for sport is stupid, boring and morally repugnant to those of us less cerebrally inclined; you know, us benighted folks who don't kill for intellectual exercise.

After the opening murder, these two sociopaths host a party with their dead friend's body stuffed in a trunk being used as a buffet for the soiree's food. Following that ten minutes of set up, the rest of the movie is about an hour of a boring party where we learn about all the interconnections between the victim's former friends, while concern grows over the friend's failure to appear at the party. This and some tedious side stories happen while we watch Dall luxuriate in his "achievement," as Granger welters in guilt and fear over being caught.

It's only when party guest and the inspiration for the murder, the boys' former professor, James Stewart, starts to get suspicious that some real tension builds. There's even a pretty good scene toward the end where Stewart realizes what these two nutcases have done and exposes their crime, but it's not enough to save this torpid effort.

I believe I read at some point that this movie was inspired by the true story of two young men, Leopold and Loeb, who did commit a murder just to see if they could get away with it. Now, a movie version of that story - with its extensive police search for the killers that hinged on one obscure clue - would have been a much more interesting movie.

But credit to Hitchcock for this attempt, flawed as it is, and for learning from it to use more of what movies allow a director to do when he made a film version of the play Dial M for Murder a few years later.
Jimmy Stewart, Bomber Pilot...the man does it al so very well! ;)
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
Caught a few episodes of The Twilight Zone during the SyFy marathon this weekend.

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Number 12 Looks Just Like You

I had remembered this episode as being about people choosing which "beautiful" person they wanted to be "transformed" into with one teenage girl discomfiting everyone by not wanting to change. But this time, I saw it more as a parable for a "benign" dictatorship. Whenever someone disagreed with an accepted practice, you could feel some fear creep in as that person was immediately offered a "glass of instant smile" like soma from Brave New World. There were also overtones of The Stepford Wives and the Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise.


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The Last Flight

A WWI fighter pilot gets lost in the clouds and lands at a 1960 American airbase. It is a really well-constructed story that smartly connects a lot of dots between the two time periods. Maybe it is not as "cerebral" as some The Twilight Zone episodes, but it's tightly written and quite engaging.


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Willoughby

I must have seen this episode of a businessman having a mental breakdown ten or more times in my life and it still hurts every time he calls his wife for help and support and she hangs up on him. Plus, I've sat in plenty of business meetings where I've thought about the curmudgeonly and bullying boss yelling "this is a push, push, push business."
 

eagle2250

Connoisseur/Curmudgeon Emeritus - Moderator
Caught a few episodes of The Twilight Zone during the SyFy marathon this weekend.

View attachment 52928
Number 12 Looks Just Like You

I had remembered this episode as being about people choosing which "beautiful" person they wanted to be "transformed" into with one teenage girl discomfiting everyone by not wanting to change. But this time, I saw it more as a parable for a "benign" dictatorship. Whenever someone disagreed with an accepted practice, you could feel some fear creep in as that person was immediately offered a "glass of instant smile" like soma from Brave New World. There were also overtones of The Stepford Wives and the Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise.


View attachment 52927
The Last Flight

A WWI fighter pilot gets lost in the clouds and lands at a 1960 American airbase. It is a really well-constructed story that smartly connects a lot of dots between the two time periods. Maybe it is not as "cerebral" as some The Twilight Zone episodes, but it's tightly written and quite engaging.


View attachment 52929
Willoughby

I must have seen this episode of a businessman having a mental breakdown ten or more times in my life and it still hurts every time he calls his wife for help and support and she hangs up on him. Plus, I've sat in plenty of business meetings where I've thought about the curmudgeonly and bullying boss yelling "this is a push, push, push business."
It appears the Twilight Zone Series sounds like a marathon well worth watching! ;)
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
It appears the Twilight Zone Series sounds like a marathon well worth watching! ;)
SyFy has been doing a "The Twilight Zone" marathon for decades now on New Years. Several years ago, I realized I was burned out, but after years of not watching them, I dipped my toe in this year, watched a few and found it's been long enough that I enjoyed them again. Next year, I'll watch more. I know I could find them right now, but I'm happy to keep them as a New Years "special" thing.
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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The Burglar from 1957 with Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield and Martha Vickers

"I'm a woman. I'm flesh and blood and I got feelings, but you never knew that. You never wanted to know, I was starving for you, night after night I tore pillows apart with my teeth, so hungry for you. I wanted you so much, you, you knew from nothing."

- Jayne Mansfield to Dan Duryea in The Burglar


We'll return to Jayne's unrequited lust shortly.

In The Burglar, a gang of four jewel thieves steal an expensive and well-known necklace from a famous female evangelist's mansion. Mansfield's job is to befriend the evangelist and case the mansion so that the three men can rob it later. And while "the job" itself is successful, with a hiccup - two cops noticed the gang's parked car and, thus, saw head-crook Dan Duryea's face - the real challenges begin after the heist.

Hold up in a run-down tenement in Philadelphia as they wait for the heat to cool a bit before they attempt to sell the necklace, the crooks begin to fight amongst themselves. Duryea, the leader and clearly the brains of the operation, wants to wait a good long time, but the other two men are itching to get their money, while Mansfield is in Duryea's camp.

Not helping the claustrophobic oppression of the small apartment is the summer's enervating heat and Mansfield, with all her Mansfieldness, creating an unbearable sexual tension for, in particular, one of the anxious-to-sell crooks.

Meanwhile, as in all good film noir crime dramas, the police are slowly but painstakingly putting clues together, while a police sketch artist, working with the two cops who saw Duryea, creates a frighteningly accurate image of his face. But one of those officers has also gone surreptitiously rogue and, with his girlfriend, Martha Vickers, is tracking the movements of the crooks as he waits for an opportunity to steal the necklace from them.

Any moral person would be rooting for the cops (the good ones, not the dirty one), but as we learn more about Duryea, our allegiances waiver. Durea was an orphan raised by a kind thief who taught him the criminal way of life and instilled in him a moral code that included no violence when "on a job" and a pledge from Duryea to always take care of the older crook's daughter, Mansfield.

Having learned this, we now see Duryea as a man broken by his upbringing, but still trying to do right within his warped moral code. He's clearly tired of it all and just wants to fence the necklace to have enough to get out and to give Mansfield a shot at a decent future, but everything is closing in on him fast.

With the other two crooks pushing for an immediate sale, the police getting closer and the rogue cop and his girlfriend, now revealed to Duryea, circling the gang, Duryea knows he has to get out of Philly and sell the necklace fast. Here, this low-budget film makes wonderful use of just-post-war Atlantic City's incredible combination of wealth, tackiness and sea-side scenery as Duryea and the gang try to "escape" from Philly via Atlantic City, which (minor spoiler alert) becomes their Alamo.

Since it's a 1950s movie, it will be no surprise that the crooks all lose, the dirty cop is exposed and the good guys win. But one of the geniuses of film noir is that it usually makes you see the "bad guys" in a morally complex light. And that's what ultimately makes this sad and challenging movie punch well above its low budget's weight class.

Duryea, in particular, is the man you hurt for even knowing he is a criminal. Usually, he plays the loud, obnoxious, overly confident or weaselly scared member of the gang, but here, in a career performance, he's the pensive, quiet one who acts with his eyes, facial inflections and body movements, while others make noise around him.

And it's only when it's too late that Mansfield delivers those lines about carnal desire to Duryea. In response, he crumbles emotionally and physically without saying a word as he has repressed all his feelings for Mansfield out of a misunderstood loyalty to the man who raised him. In this, the movie's money moment, he sees that he and Mansfield could have had a chance, but now all is lost. It's a painfully raw reveal in this well-done, but not well-known entry in the film-noir genre.
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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Bell Book and Candle from 1958 with Kim Novak, James Stewart, Jack Lemmon and Janice Rule

And I wish I been out in California
When the lights on all the Christmas trees went out
But I been burnin' my bell, book and candle
And the restoration plays have all gone 'round

- From the Rolling Stones song "Winter."


Some movies get better after you've seen them a few times as the plot is almost a distraction to the movie's more enjoyable style and verve, as in Bell Book and Candle. I've always liked this one, but now in my third or fourth viewing in, well, three or four decades, I found I really enjoyed it because I took it in more as a stylized 1950s experience, than a plot-driven story.

Sure, there's a plot: a comely, cat-like witch, Kim Novak, bored with living amongst, but culturally separate from, humans, wants to fall in love with a human, which will cost her, her sorceress powers. Her amorous target is her upstairs neighbor, successful and conservative book publisher James Stewart, who is a bit too old for the role of a middle-aged bachelor.

All the stuff you expect to happen in this normal witch-human love story (see I Married a Witch and most episodes of Bewitched) happens: she initially casts a spell on Stewart to win his affections; his life gets turned upside down; her witch and warlock friends warn her to not give up her powers and try to sabotage her efforts at love; he discovers (after haughtily dismissing the idea of witches) what happened and angrily leaves her, but things work out in the end as he, ultimately, falls in love with her of his own free will.

Okay, that's a good story, which is why Hollywood keeps telling it, but the fun and frolic in Bell Book and Candle is the stylized look into a witchy world acting as a surrogate for 1950s' Beatnik culture centered around New York's Greenwich Village.

Here, women wear pants and men turtlenecks (except some of the jazz musicians who wear Ivy-league suits as that was a thing then) while the witches' potions and herbs are, one assumes, a stand-in for drugs and weed. Basically, it's witches and warlocks as a proxy for mid-twentieth-century Village bohemians.

Hence, where Stewart's society fiance, Janice Rule, is fussily dressed, bejeweled, status conscious and uptight, Novak is cool, aloof, casually (but highly witchily) styled and overtly sexual. Coincidentally, Novak and Rule were rivals when they both attended Radcliffe years ago. Adding to the present day frisson and friction, Stewart, under Novak's spell, dumps Rule, on the day of Stewart and Rule's wedding - ouch.

Sure, witch Novak is weird as heck, but Stewart - under a spell or not - could sense the difference between a passionate female and a calculating woman. And that's just one contrast in this movie of contrasts as Stewart's upscale and conservative apartment and office looks worlds apart from Novak's coven-like flat and the dark and smokey underground clubs and stores she frequents.

And nothing contrasts more than publisher Stewart, in his tailored suits, running around Greenwich Village with clad-in-body-hugging-black-slacks-and-top Novak. But that is also part of the charm as it's enjoyable seeing fish-out-of-water Stewart go from skeptic dismissing witchcraft to believer as his love for Novak evolves from spell driven to heartfelt, despite having his world turned topsy turvy.

While not a Hitchcock effort, director Richard Quine produced a somewhat Hitchcock-like movie where the style is so visually captivating and the people so engaging, that the story fades as you just enjoy the ride.

And no one is more engaging in this one than Novak channeling her inner witch to be both mysterious and vulnerable as she finds love more fulfilling than power. When she runs out barefoot into the snow to find her lost partner in witchcraft, her cat Pywacket, as she simply can't stand losing both him and Stewart (they're on the outs at this moment) at the same time, your heart aches for her.

There's more going on in this one - Ernie Kovaks in the role of an offbeat writer of witch stories and Jack Lemmon as Novak's warlock and mischievous bongo-playing brother - but it's Novak as the witch in search of love who centers and drives the story. A highly stylized movie about a witch falling in love with a human is a tightrope effort, but Bell Book and Candle pulls it off with an enthusiastic confidence that only makes repeated viewings more enjoyable.

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Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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The Last Days of Disco from 1998 with Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny (that name doesn't spell itself), Chris Eigman and Mackenzie Astin / written and directed by Whit Stillman

Other than that I know there are very strong opinions out there about Whit Stillman movies, I don't really know what the debate is about nor could I have named a Whit Stillman movie prior to seeing this one, even though, I subsequently checked, I had already seen two or three of them. Hence, I know my comments will miss the mark on whatever the bigger Whit Stillman's issues out there are.

Set in the early '80s, the story centers around two young college-graduate women, Beckinsale and Sevigny, trying to transition to adulthood in New York City. They work as interns at a publishing house during the day and party at night with their guy friends at "The Club," New York's hottest disco, which I assume is modeled after Studio 54.

As is common with young kids, their friends are entwined in their lives - they share apartments, steal each other's boyfriends and girlfriends, hook up casually, gossip and both undermine and help each other.

In a way, that's the movie. Sure there are some small plots about the club being investigated by the district attorney's office (with one friend working at the club and another on the DA's staff) and whether the women will be promoted to assistant editors, etc., but this is a character-driven, moment-in-time movie.

And as a character, Kate Beckinsale nails the post-college, smart, arrogant, manipulating, know-it-all woman who projects a confidence that hides the same insecurities everyone is dealing with. She issues edicts and maxims with conviction in one scene, only to dismiss them in the next one when they are inconvenient: "never date someone in advertising" she tells her friend when she wants to break up her relationship, followed later by, "of course I wasn't serious" when she starts dating the same guy [quotes are paraphrases].

All the characters here are a type - the shy brainy one, the guy who ditched college but is doing well, for the moment, managing at The Club, the liberal idealist bemoaning the plight of the low-paid white-collar workers in publishing, the advertising guy trying to suck up to his bosses for a promotion - but each actor brings enough personality and distinction to keep you somewhat interested.

Having moved to NYC in the '80s after college, I knew the people in The Last Days of Disco - cocky, "in the know," opinionated, lived in their group and, generally, annoying. Stillman clearly knows these people too as he perfectly captured, not only the type, but that type at just that moment and place in time. And while New York City in the movie looks more like late 1990s New York, when the movie was filmed, than early 1980s, the actors' attitude and posturing are all 1980s.

Now, twenty-plus years after it was filmed, the movie's New York street scenes are a treat. Combined with smart, if sometimes, over-written dialogue, the full-on-'80s zeitgeist and enough humanity to counter the many cliches, it's kinda an enjoyable movie. Plus, if you happened to have been just out of college and living in New York City in the '80s back then, the movie will produce some feelings of nostalgia.
 

Fading Fast

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Dr Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb from 1964 with Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott

A rogue US general, wonderfully played by Sterling Hayden, spouting crazy anti-communist theories launches an unauthorized nuclear attack on the USSR at the height of the Cold War. The rest of the movie is saner people - the general's aide-de-camp, the president, most of his military leadership team, the rightfully-suspicious Soviet America diplomat and the USSR's president - trying to stop the attack before it sets off, owing to a Soviet "doomsday machine," a nuclear armageddon.

Sure, it's a smart black comedy about the Cold War and the arms race. And if you accept that the characters are supposed to be over the top, then the acting is spot on. And if you think about it in the context of 1964, the height of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, then it must have had a timeliness that increased its impact.

It's all those things - and they're good - but it's also smug and condescending. Most people are philosophically against war, fighting and arms races. And few would argue against the moral superiority of being for peace. So it's easy to be "against war and killing," as this movie is, the hard thing is to stop the Hitlers, the USSRs and other dictatorships set on world domination with flowers, not bullets, with nice ideas, not physical might.

Dr Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb doesn't try to offer a solution to that question because it takes the easier route of pointing out how all of our military efforts and conflicts can look absurd when you step outside of them. Strangelove shines at showing that absurdity by exaggeration as when we learn that the rogue general launched the attack in part because he believes fluoridation of the water is a communist plot to poison our "precious bodily fluids." Or they look absurd when we watch equally wackadoodle top-military advisor to the president, George C. Scott, ridiculously twist every turn in the story into a communist plot or a way for him to have more casual sex.

There's even more crazy here as we see a former Nazi scientist, now one of the president's top advisors (one of the three roles played by Sellers, the other two are the president and the rogue-general's aide-de-camp) who has an injured arm that can't help giving the Nazi solute as he discusses plans to repopulate the earth after a nuclear winter. And perhaps the movie's most-famous crazy moment is when the pilot of the one American bomber that makes it through the Soviet air defences - a stereotyped and exaggerated American cowboy itching to bomb "the commies -" ends up riding the bomb like a rodeo bull to its target. No symbol or message is subtle or nuanced here.

This low-budget film is a bit clunky for a Stanley Kubrick effort with, for example, poorly done combat scenes when the army tries to storm the rogue general's base. Stranglelove is a secondary entry in the early '60s plethora of bleak political commentary movies like Seven Days in May or Fail Safe. Most of them are good movies that raise smart and serious questions, but most of them also, like Strangelove, take the easy route of denouncing war or bombs or something most of us denounce, without telling us how to resolve the problem. The viewer, like the movie maker, gets to feel morally superior, but it is an on-the-cheap emotion as mocking a problem isn't the same as solving it.
 
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