1951

Storm Warning (1951, Stuart Heisler)

One of Storm Warning’s failings is its attempt to carefully navigate the story content so I’m just going to be lead-footed and get right to things, which probably would’ve helped the movie though not the ending.

Storm Warning is about Ginger Rogers visiting sister Doris Day and witnessing the Ku Klux Klan murdering someone. Rogers sees it before she even lets Day know she’s in town for a visit. Rogers is a fashion model who travels the country modeling clothes at buyers’ meetings. For a while it seems like Storm Warning might be a de facto strong woman picture, just because Rogers is clearly the protagonist and she’s also “of a certain age,” which probably meant over twenty-four in 1951 but Rogers is late thirties. Sadly, no. I expected way too much when I saw Richard Brooks on the screenwriting credit; I always forget the reason Daniel Fuchs stands out is because I’ve seen The Thing too many times and not because he’s a good writer.

Anyway.

Warning has a short present action (twenty-five hours or so) and a fine pace. So right away Rogers finds out Day’s husband, who she’s never met and Day has moved to this small town to be with and, oh, Day’s pregnant—the husband (Steve Cochran in an arguably fantastic performance) is one of the killers. Rogers saw two of them unmasked, Hugh Sanders is the other. It’s important because just when the movie ought to be about Rogers and Day, or even just Rogers (as it turns out Day’s been going along with the Klan—just like the rest of the town), it’s about Cochran and Sanders. Ronald Reagan and whatever the hell is going on with his oversized suits is second-billed but he turns out to be irrelevant, with less a part to play than even Sanders. He’s the county prosecutor who wants to go after the Klan, even if it means he’s going to lose his re-election campaign. See, the Klan (run by Sanders) has supplanted the rule of law. The guy they kill at the beginning is a reporter who’s close to uncovering the Klan isn’t just supplanting the rule of law, but—and it comes in real quick—Sanders is actually ripping all the dumb racist hicks off because they’re dumb racist hicks. There’s some of the script’s careful navigating—see, while Klan members are showing poor judgment, they’re also victims of income tax evaders.

It’s shocking Storm Warning didn’t cure racism back in 1951 with such a bold statement. Eye roll.

Of course, Warning doesn’t address racism. There are occasional Black people in the film, meaningfully iCocn shots, but they don’t get any lines and there’s no violence against them or even mention of their existence. What’s wrong with the Klan is they’re holding small towns back so people like Ginger Rogers won’t want to visit. As Sanders puts it, if it weren’t for the Klan, Rogers wouldn’t be able to walk the streets at night. Sanders isn’t worried about the phantom Black male attacking her it turns out; it’s his men. You need the Klan to stop racist hick men from assaulting women en masse or so Sanders says. And the film agrees with him, which should throw off its internal philosophy but doesn’t because holy crap the ending is nuts morality play….

It’s a mess.

But for a while, it’s not and it’s rather good, even if it’s a little neutered. Rogers is really good, even when the film doesn’t have anything for her to do. Director Heisler will give Rogers these reaction shots—where she’s reacting to things she’s observing—and she does a great job with them. Shame the shots all seem forced in (or Clarence Kolster just does a terrible job editing). Day’s okay. She’s got a couple rather good scenes, but also a number of weak ones. It’s hard to buy her and Cochran, who’s always a bastard of one kind or another. Though the film also tries its darnedest to imply Day’s a little bit dumb, which throws a wrench in that pro-woman message I’d foolishly assumed would be a factor since… it’s about Rogers standing up to the Klan, right? But Day’s possible dullness is just another excuse for her inaction.

Storm Warning really likes giving White people an excuse to be inactive. Including Reagan’s parents, who didn’t used to think his silly liberal politics (in this case, thinking the Klan shouldn’t be allowed to kidnap and murder people) were good, but they’re grown on them since Reagan’s such a profound legal orator.

He’s not. He’s really not. The courtroom scene is terribly written.

Reagan’s fine overall. His suits are dumb, he’s got no personality, but he’s kind of banally charming. He really, really, really, really, really never should’ve been given lead roles. Someone seemed to think he was Jimmy Stewart.

He’s not.

Cochran’s terrifying. Even after the movie takes a few hits—the courtroom stuff is exceptionally problematic, plot-wise—Cochran’s still reliably foreboding. All the tension comes from him, even if his scenes with Sanders are dramatically inert nonsense.

Sanders isn’t bad, but he’s never good. He’s a one dimensional Mr. Big.

Great photography from Carl E. Guthrie; the exterior night time shots are fantastic (right up until the end when Heisler can’t figure out how to frame the climax and Guthrie can’t figure out how to light what Heisler goes with). Too much music from Daniele Amfitheatrof but not bad. Just too much.

Storm Warning could’ve been good. It could’ve given Rogers a great role, could’ve given Day a great role, could’ve given Reagan… well, maybe could’ve not wasted the time Reagan’s onscreen. It starts strong and seems sturdy but nope. And not even because of all the hoops it jumps through to avoid really talking about the Klan.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; written by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks; director of photography, Carl E. Guthrie; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Daniele Amfitheatrof; produced by Jerry Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Marsha Mitchell), Steve Cochran (Hank Rice), Doris Day (Lucy Rice), Hugh Sanders (Charlie Barr), Lloyd Gough (Cliff Rummel), Raymond Greenleaf (Faulkner), and Ronald Reagan (Burt Rainey).


Flying Padre (1951, Stanley Kubrick)

Flying Padre has three types of impressive shots. The first two types involve an airplane. The short is about a New Mexico priest who flies around his 4,000-square mile parish. There are interior and exterior shots of the plane and director Kubrick gets some fantastic shots from inside out. He’s also got some great shots of the plane from the ground, though they’re occasionally a little jerky. Given how smooth the camera movements tend to be in Padre, the jerks have got to be unintentional.

Then there are the close-ups. Kubrick gets these great shots of the priest’s parishioners when he’s performing services. Sometimes there are great shots involving the priest himself, but more often it’s when Kubrick can get a shot of the ostensibly enraptured parishioners.

The shots with the priest tend to involve action, not reflection. Flying Padre is–in its nine minutes–a bit of an adventure story. The priest, Father Stadtmueller, goes from funeral to children’s counselor to erstwhile ambulance driver. I suppose the funeral’s real? Though it seems a little macabre either way. Because the children’s counselor bit–and then the ambulance flier bit–those two are definitely staged. They might be based on real events, but they’re dramatized for Flying Padre.

The short’s got no natural sound. There are occasional diegetic sounds, like the bullied child knocking on the priest’s door or the priest’s birds chirping, but they didn’t record any sound during filming. Or, if they did, they didn’t use it, which is too bad because Father Stadtmueller is frequently talking. There’s constant narration to explain what’s going on.

The narration also establishes the narrative distance, something Kubrick relies on once the staging is obvious. When Father Stadtmueller has to fly a mother and her sick baby to a medical services, there are shots of the mother talking to the Father. While they’re on the plane. And it’s obvious there’s no way they both could’ve fit in the plane with a camera.

Kubrick even pokes fun at the priest at one point, when the narration describes him as a crack shot with a rifle and then Father Stadtmueller misses not just the bullseye but the any of the target’s rings.

There are some excellent shots and some great location shooting to get Padre through.

Flying Padre’s interesting but disposable. Kubrick’s got some ambitious filmmaking but no ambitions for the short itself.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Photographed and directed by Stanley Kubrick; edited by Isaac Kleinerman; music by Nathaniel Shilkret; produced by Benjamin Burton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fred Stadtmueller; narrated by Bob Hite.


Chicken in the Rough (1951, Jack Hannah)

Chicken in the Rough is constantly charming. It feels incomplete, but it’s still constantly charming.

Chip ‘n’ Dale are collecting nuts near a farm. On that farm, the rooster is waiting for a hen’s eggs to hatch. Anthropomorphizing roosters and hens is one heck of a thing, incidentally. Just the relationship and the implied expectant mother and father. So Dale, being an idiot, mistakes the soon-to-hatch eggs for walnuts and gets curious. Chip tries to correct him, but fails (and then disappears, another reason the cartoon feels incomplete); basically, it ends up with Dale pretending to be a chick to try to fool the rooster, who’s thrilled he’s a new daddy.

And the hen just assumes Dale is one of her chicks. Even after all the other chicks are born.

It’s a short cartoon, with Dale trying to get away from the rooster–who’s simultaneously wise to the chipmunk not being a chick and yet still hopeful he’s wrong and Dale is his newborn (it’s weird and cute). There’s a great sequence where Dale has to pretend to eat a bug. And Dale trying to convince the actual chick to stick around is excellent too.

Most of the action takes place inside the expecting hen’s hen house (separate from the other hens) and the animation’s good.

It’s too short and doesn’t have anything approaching an ending, but Chicken in the Rough’s many charms–particularly the voice acting (even the hen gets some “lines”)–make up for the cartoon’s foibles.

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Hannah; written by Nick George and Bill Berg; animated by Bob Carlson, Bill Justice, and Judge Whitaker; music by Joseph Dubin; produced by Walt Disney; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Dessie Flynn (Dale), James MacDonald (Chip), and Florence Gill (hen).


An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli)

For most of An American in Paris, Gene Kelly’s charm makes up for his lack of acting ability. Even after it turns out the story’s about him stalking Leslie Caron until she agrees to go out with him. It’s okay after that point because she falls immediately in love with Kelly once she does. He makes her laugh.

Funny thing about Caron’s part being so razor thin? She’s the only one with a backstory. She’s the orphan of French Resistance fighter parents. Georges Guétary took care of her. And now she’s legal age and so of course Guétary wants to marry her. So there’s a lot of potential character development.

The script–by Alan Jay Lerner–does none. Caron’s introduction is a series of dancing vignettes, as Guétary describes her. Her personality changes with each. Then later it turns out she doesn’t get a personality at all.

Anyway. Adding to Kelly’s creep factor is how he picks up Caron when he’s out on a date with Nina Foch. She’s a wealthy American who likes Kelly’s paintings and wants to be his patron. Kelly thinks she’s after his bod. But he still harasses Caron on a real date. There’s even a scene where Foch yells at him and Kelly blows her off.

Immediately after it’s forgotten–as in, the script has Foch and Kelly talking about how it’s forgotten; basically Foch is around for American to mock. Not really for comic relief, but in a vaguely mean-spirited way. Because the movie’s not actually about Kelly arriving as a painter.

Oh, right. Kelly’s an ex-G.I. who stayed behind in Paris to become a painter. He lives above a café. His neighbor and pal is Oscar Levant. Levant’s old friends with Guétary, leading not to a love triangle so much as some situation comedy regarding Guétary and Kelly being after the same girl. Both men are old enough to be her father (though in Guétary’s case, only because he’s French).

The film opens with Kelly, Levant, then Guétary narrating an introduction to themselves. The film almost breaks the fourth wall and just has the actors directly address the audience. Given how laggy the device gets–not to mention how the film completely abandons it–a direct address might have worked better.

So while Kelly starves and struggles–before Foch shows up to save him in the second scene–but he’s actually an amazing singer and dancer. Everybody on the block loves it when he and Levant (a concert pianist who’s never had a concert) does a big musical number. The traffic stops. The pedestrians stops. Everyone watches and applauds.

You’d think Kelly would just get a job singing and dancing then.

His numbers are all good. Guétary’s not so much. He only gets one, though he also drags at one of Kelly’s. Sure, he’s French, sure, it’s Paris, but the French-ness overwhelms the musical number value. The accent. It’s distracting. And Paris’s Paris is already a little too fake. It’s beautifully constructed, beautifully lighted (Alfred Gilks’s Technicolor is gorgeous), but there’s barely anyone but Americans around. Foch, Levant (Levant’s gutturally American), an uncredited Noel Neill. Except Guétary getting a number to himself (and a slight subplot) takes up time and An American in Paris is always looking for ways to kill time.

Like Levant’s daydream where he’s playing all the parts in a concert performance. Pianist, audience member, accompanying musician. It’s funny. It’s utterly pointless. But it’s funny. And it’s beautifully executed with the photography effects.

Caron might as well be American. She gets so few lines it barely matters her accent is authentic.

The movie moves along pretty well until the third act, which has a seventeen minute ballet. It’s sort of where Kelly’s heart is broken and he finds himself in the Paris of his paintings but not really because the film never spends enough time on the paintings. Though Kelly can’t make the painting thing work. He dances great. He acts not great.

Spectacular choreography, beautiful sets, great photography, awesome editing from Adrienne Fazan. Okay direction from Minnelli.

American is an expertly executed musical. Shame about the script and acting.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; story and screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner; lyrics by Ira Gershwin; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by George Gershwin; produced by Arthur Freed; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan), Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier), Nina Foch (Milo Roberts), Georges Guétary (Henri Baurel), and Oscar Levant (Adam Cook).


The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)

The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with these sensational titles. 3D text jumping out, set against the backdrop of space, Bernard Herrmann’s score at its loudest; the titles suggest the film is going to be something grandiose. It is and it isn’t. For the first act, director Wise moves quickly, short scenes setting up the world’s reaction to a flying saucer circling the planet. Newscasters report, air traffic control investigates, people worry.

And then the ship lands. The special effects in Day the Earth Stood Still are excellent without ever being sensational or outlandish. There are only a couple major effects sequences–the space ship landing, the titular incident–otherwise, the film’s rather quiet. It starts big, then Edmund H. North’s script starts closing it in, making it smaller and smaller until it can fit into a house. Specifically, into second-billed Patricia Neal’s boarding house. She’s just a resident, a widow living there with her son, Billy Gray.

They’re there, listening to the radio, when a new boarder arrives. That boarder, Michael Rennie, is the space man, escaped from the Army hospital (some grunt shot him after he walked out of the space ship and got out a gift for the President). At that moment, the film changes. Or, more accurately, perturbs in an unexpected, gentler direction. Rennie’s quiet, reserved, inquisitive, and gentle. Sure, he’s got a giant robot with laser vision, but Rennie just wants to see what humans are like.

Rennie’s mission to Earth is simple. He wants to address the world leaders. The United States government, its nipples hard at the thought of a prolonged Cold War, is no help. So Rennie decides he’s going to try the scientists, starting with Sam Jaffe. Only Jaffe’s not home when Rennie comes to visit.

Until the middle of the movie, North’s script never takes the focus off Rennie. Gray’s around a lot, but he’s never the focus. It’s Rennie, the alien, who acts as the viewer’s guide through the film. And the film keeps the viewer informed about Rennie’s plans and, often, his thoughts. Eventually, Neal has to take the lead–she’s got to stop her idiot boyfriend Hugh Marlowe from dooming the planet–and she stays in the lead until the end of the film, but the first half is all Rennie.

Besides the big Earth standing still sequence, there’s also a big chase sequence at the end involving a military dragnet. Wise and editor William Reynolds are methodical with it, tightening the net around Rennie in real time, tightening viewer expectation as it progresses. The viewer knows to be concerned more than Rennie, who’s cautious but not enough. He’s kind of powerless, after all. Interplanetary traveller or not, the film establishes right off he can be hurt. It also establishes most Earthlings are more than happy to shoot first and not ask any questions at all.

But the film’s never cynical. It can’t be with Gray around. He’s thrilled to have a new friend in Rennie, who acts as babysitter so Neal can hang out with Marlowe. She just thinks Marlowe’s pushy, not an abject tool. Gray and Rennie’s day out, which includes the first visit to Jaffe’s house, also has the unlikely duo visiting Gray’s father’s grave in Arlington Cemetary. The war isn’t mentioned but it’s omnipresent, kind of like government bureaucracy; the film does extremely well with its Washington D.C. setting and some of the city’s locations. The scene at the Lincoln Monument is particularly effective.

Gray’s lack of cynicism stands up to a lot of pressure, including some from Neal–her rejection of cynicism is what hands the film off to her. It’s too bad the film drops Gray in the second half; Day only runs ninety minutes, there’s not a lot of room. It’s either got to be Gray and Rennie or Neal and Rennie active in the main plot.

Much of that main plot takes place indoors, in the ordinary. People are scared, unsure about what’s going on with the flying saucer and the spaceman on the loose (Rennie’s incognito at the boarding house). Wise and cinematographer Leo Tover have these confined–but never cramped–shots inside. Outside they open up, especially when they get to do location shooting, but inside… well, Rennie wanted to find out how people lived, didn’t he?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is always methodical and never ponderous. Wise, screenwriter North, editor Reynolds, they all keep things moving. It’s fantastic but in a mundane, thoughtful way. Just like Rennie. He keeps an even keel throughout his adventures on Earth, no matter how dangerous things get for him.

Excellent performances from everyone–Rennie, Neal, Gray, Marlowe, Jaffe–it’s not a big cast. It’s a big story, sure, but the film keeps that story contained. The human element is most important; even during the big effects set pieces, Wise makes sure the human reaction is present. He ably scales the human element when needed. Confined to big, big to small. It’s reassuring. Just like Rennie.

Day is a fine film. It’s got its limits, but Wise and company accomplish what they set out to do. Though, maybe, not what those 3D opening titles suggest they’re going to set out to do.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on a story by Harry Bates; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Reynolds; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Julian Blaustein; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe (Professor Jacob Barnhardt), and Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley).


Encore (1951, Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French)

With the exception of some overly confident rear screen projection and a problematic middle story, Encore is an almost entirely successful anthology of three W. Somerset Maugham stories. Each story has a different director and screenwriter; otherwise the crew is the same.

Maugham introduces each story, usually saying something to mildly detract from it–he emphasizes the stories being fictionalizations of real life, which seems a tad pointless, but it’s better than when he assails one of his characters. More on that one in a bit.

The first story is an extremely dry comedy, with loafing Nigel Patrick trying to get money out of his successful older brother, played by Roland Culver. Pat Jackson directs it, T.E.B. Clarke does the script for it. Both Patrick and Culver are fantastic–Patrick’s solution to Culver not lending him money is to take menial jobs in Culver’s social circle to humiliate him. So for a while the segment is just Patrick being a perfect bastard and Culver getting more and more frustrated. The jobs are always funny–and always involve Culver’s bewildered client, Charles Victor–before it takes a very fun turn at the end.

Clarke’s script is fast and funny, Jackson’s direction is the same. Jackson lets Patrick walk off with scenes (usually over Culver–but not always) to great effect.

From that very high start, Encore immediately gets in to trouble with the second segment. It starts before the segment itself, with Maugham complaining about a woman he once didn’t like. It’s appropriate, dire forecasting.

Directed by Anthony Pelissier and written by Arthur Macrae, the second segment is about annoying cruise ship passenger Kay Walsh. No one can stand her. She’s talkative and friendly, which is obnoxious to captain Noel Purcell and ship’s doctor Ronald Squire. Lots of the complaints have to do with Walsh being a woman, which seems like lazy writing on someone’s part (Macrae’s or Maugham’s), and it reduces every character in the segment to a caricature. At the end, it turns out the caricatures were intentional so there could be a last minute reveal.

Despite the characters being astoundingly thin, the performances are all generally fine. Once she gets to do, Walsh is quite good (good enough someone should’ve rethought the adaptation of the story, as it’s no good for film). Pelissier’s direction, albeit peppered with stock footage of the ocean, the Bahamas, and so on, is quite good. He’s directing for the actors, shame the script isn’t there for them.

The final segment starts with yet another troubling introduction from Maugham. It’s going to be about dangerous stunt performers, he says, who he wishes would just do something safer.

Glynis Johns (top-billed for the whole picture) is a high diver. She dives eighty feet into five feet of water, which is covered in flames. She does it twice a night for rich diners at a Riviera resort. Husband Terence Morgan is her announcer and manager. Johns is getting sick of the life, while Morgan is negotiating longer and longer, and more and more lucrative, contracts for her. When they meet retired daredevil Mary Merrall (and her husband, Martin Miller), Johns’s crises become more immediate.

Harold French directs this segment, from a script by Eric Ambler. It’s the biggest segment–though there’s still some questionable rear screen projection on the Riveria, there’s a physical eighty-foot diving platform and a lot of sets. There’s the restaurant, there’s a casino, it’s a lot more open than either of the preceding segments. It’s not about the sets or the stunts, however, it’s all about Johns and her growing fear. About Morgan and his working class dreams. Of the three, it embraces its sentimentality the most and is the most ambitious. French and Ambler don’t have a last minute reveal or some really funny situational comedy to fall back on. They just have the actors. And the actors succeed.

Excellent performances–from Patrick, Culver, Walsh, Johns, Morgan, and Merrall–excellent direction, solid production values (excepting the problematic rear screen, of course) result in an entirely satisfactory, rather successful film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French; screenplay by T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Desmond Dickinson; edited by Alfred Roome; music by Richard Addinsell; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Nigel Patrick (Tom Ramsay), Roland Culver (George Ramsay), Charles Victor (Mr. Bateman), Peter Graves (Philip Cronshaw), Kay Walsh (Miss Molly Reid), Noel Purcell (Captain), Ronald Squire (Doctor), Jacques François (Pierre), John Horsley (Joe, Mate), Glynis Johns (Stella Cotman), Terence Morgan (Syd Cotman), Mary Merrall (Flora Penezzi), and Martin Miller (Carlo Penezzi).


Valentino (1951, Lewis Allen)

Valentino opens with lead Anthony Dexter (whose resemblance to Valentino got him the job, not his acting abilities) doing the tango. It’s the troupe’s rehearsal and it’s fine. It’s not concerning, which is sort of cool for the film, because most of the scenes are concerning. George Bruce’s screenplay–based on his own story, “Valentino As I Knew Him”–ranges from tepid to cringe-worthy. Lewis Allen’s direction of that screenplay is never better than in this first scene. It’s as good, but it’s also much worse.

So when Valentino approaches mediocre, it’s to be appreciated. And you know early on, because the third scene–where Dexter quits the dance troupe because boss Dona Drake wants him to be hers alone. Not all women’s. Drake’s performance is terrible but her role is terrible and hackneyed. Allen doesn’t care. It’s kind of stunning to watch this beautifully rendered Technicolor–Harry Stradling Sr.’s photography is only workman because Allen never asks him to do anything else (or takes him off set)–with this constantly misfiring production.

Bruce’s script either has Dexter playing Lothario or Great Lover, often to the same character. It might keep the character’s true intentions secret if Dexter didn’t give a spellbindingly awful performance. He kind of makes it through the first act, mostly because Eleanor Parker is on hand to hold the movie up, but once Dexter’s on his own… it gets real bad. A lot of it is Allen. He’s not trying at all with his composition. He has this one shot he uses for Richard Carlson’s close-ups over and over again. Carlson’s thanklessly playing clueless cuckold–Parker’s beau and Dexter’s best friend and both their boss. He’s a movie director.

Through the first act, Parker has this character to play. She’s a fictional silent era star–Allen’s real bad at rendering the silent era stuff, though it’s not clear Valentino had the budget to get the scenes done. The cheapness is another problem. Once Dexter arrives in New York City and it’s a backlot set of a town square? Well, segueing back to Parker, at least they didn’t cheap on her wardrobe. She’s beyond glamorous.

Unfortunately, other than the gowns, Parker ends up with nothing. Valentino makes some promises to its female stars–top-billed Parker and third-billed Patricia Medina–they’re supposed to be Dexter’s great loves. Parker makes it work until the script’s just too silly; she and Carlson also have zero chemistry together as creative partners, much less romantic ones. But it’s the script (and Allen) more than the actors. Medina has this somewhat interesting role as Dexter and Parker’s confidant who Dexter cravenly romances.

Valentino has a really small cast of characters who all are in the movie business and none of them have friends outside each other. There’s familiar chemistry between the actors–all of them–except it’s up to Parker and Medina to hold up Dexter. Parker at least gets to have a full character arc, albeit a terrible, thoughtless one, but not Medina. She’s completely disposable once her function is executed.

Everything in Valentino is purely functional, with the exception of Joseph Calleia’s throwaway comic relief lines. Calleia should have the best part in the movie. He’s Dexter’s down-to-earth confidant and business manager. They’re paisanos. Bruce is big on the authentic dialogue.

But Calleia’s got a crap part. He’s there to prop up Dexter too. Only the writing is a lot less compelling, which is a surprise how boring Bruce can go with this script, and Calleia can’t do it. The material isn’t there. Allen isn’t there. And, somehow, Valentino actually manages to get worse.

When Parker does come back, she’s in a different role–she’s subject, not lead. The film introduces Lloyd Gough as a reporter who’s on to Dexter. The last third turns out to be he and Dexter’s showdown over the Valentino brand. Initially, Gough’s a welcome surprise just because he’s different. Turns out you can be different and bad. Valentino has a lot of different bad things about it. Except the Technicolor and Parker’s wardrobe, there’s nothing to recommend it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Allen; screenplay by George Bruce, based on his story, “Valentino As I Knew Him;” director of photography, Harry Stradling Sr.; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Edward Small; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Joan Carlisle), Richard Carlson (Bill King), Patricia Medina (Lila Reyes), Joseph Calleia (Luigi Verducci), Dona Drake (Maria Torres), Lloyd Gough (Eddie Morgan), Otto Kruger (Mark Towers), and introducing Anthony Dexter (Rudolph Valentino).


Detective Story (1951, William Wyler)

Detective Story, the film, is William Wyler’s “production” of Sidney Kingsley’s play of the same title. Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler adapted the play. Wyler directed and produced the film. It is a stage adaptation and proud of it. The phrasing above is directly adapted from how the film opens and credits Wyler and Kingsley in the opening titles. One card: Wyler, Kingsley, Detective Story. Only it comes after the headlining cast title card: Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix. Detective Story is an extremely controlled viewing experience from the start.

Most of the film takes place inside the detective’s office of a police station. There are a handful of locations around the station, but Wyler sticks with the detective’s office. He and cinematographers Lee Garmes and John F. Seitz give the room some impossibly high ceilings–Detective Story’s audience isn’t looking up at it, Wyler wants the audience to be able to examine the film, to examine its pieces.

The best scenes in the film involve Eleanor Parker. She’s Kirk Douglas’s wife. He’s a puritanical cop, she’s got a secret. Wyler opens the film with Bert Freed and Lee Grant–they provide a frame–she’s a shoplifter who’s got to go to night court. Freed’s got to wait with her. Wyler makes the audience wait for Douglas. Then he makes them wait a little longer for Parker. He’s already established the harsh realities of Detective Story; when Parker arrives, she’s a ray of light.

Detective Story is very disillusioned, very noir, only Wyler doesn’t shoot it noir. He’s not making noir, he’s staging a play. Detective Story’s two biggest problems are Robert Swink’s editing, which can’t keep up with the actors, and Yordan and Wyler’s generic cop talk. It might work on stage, with the audience looking up, but not when they’re examining everything. Wyler invites the audience to examine the reality of Detective Story and he even appears to rush through the bad cop talk to far better sequences as though embarrassed.

There are a lot of characters, there’s a lot going on. Wyler has to get through it; he’s rarely subtle about the pace. There’s one lovely transition sequence from day to night but otherwise, Wyler’s just trying to get from one great scene for an actor to the next. It’s a play, after all.

Parker gets the best stuff. She gets spun around and has to right herself. She has to dominate her scenes, which is incredibly difficult considering the whole movie is about Kirk Douglas’s whirlwind. Sometimes he’s still, but he’s still a whirlwind. He has to be the hero the audience hates themselves for ever loving. Only it’s not a last minute revelation, it’s late second act plot development. Wyler and Douglas (and Parker) then have to take it all even further. Detective Story, as innocuous as it sounds, means to stomp out all the hopes and dreams it can.

Great performances all over. Freed, Grant, Michael Strong, Gerald Mohr, Joseph Wiseman–especially Joseph Wiseman, whose maniac career criminal ends up being Douglas’s alter ego–George Macready, Cathy O’Donnell. Wyler makes sure every performance is good, but not every actor can get enough of a part. It’s all Douglas and Parker’s show, after all. Even Bendix, who’s Douglas’s far more humane partner and gets a subplot all his own, eventually has to move further aside.

Detective Story isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a most perfect staging of a play on film. Wyler’s pacing is precise, his direction of the actors is flawless, his narrative distance is fantastic, ably assisted by his cinematographers and art directors and set decorator. Sure, Swink’s editing is occasionally messy but it’s all for the best of the actors. And they’re what’s essential. Parker, Douglas, Bendix, Horace McMahon (forgot about him earlier). They do startling work and Wyler knows it and wants to best showcase it. Detective Story’s an achievement for everyone involved.

Except Swink, of course.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley; directors of photography, Lee Garmes and John F. Seitz; edited by Robert Swink; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Det. James McLeod), Eleanor Parker (Mary McLeod), William Bendix (Det. Lou Brody), Cathy O’Donnell (Susan Carmichael), George Macready (Karl Schneider), Horace McMahon (Lt. Monaghan), Gladys George (Miss Hatch), Joseph Wiseman (Charley Gennini), Lee Grant (Shoplifter), Gerald Mohr (Tami Giacoppetti), Frank Faylen (Det. Gallagher), Craig Hill (Arthur Kindred), Michael Strong (Lewis Abbott), Luis Van Rooten (Joe Feinson), Bert Freed (Det. Dakis), Warner Anderson (Endicott Sims), Grandon Rhodes (Det. O’Brien), William ‘Bill’ Phillips (Det. Pat Callahan) and Russell Evans (Patrolman Barnes).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Eleanor Parker, Part 2: Technicolor.

Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder)

Ace in the Hole moves while the script–from director Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman–never races. In fact, it’s deliberate and methodical, maybe even redundant at times (especially in the first act). The redundant moments aren’t actually a problem since Kirk Douglas is in almost every scene of the film and, even when he doesn’t have the best scene, his performance is fantastic.

Douglas plays disgraced newspaperman trying to make it in a world of journalism students and publishers who believe in ethics and so on. Douglas believes in selling the most newspapers and getting paid for it. Most of the first act has Douglas spreading the gospel, which makes for great scenes.

The story then has Douglas happening across a tragic situation and exploiting it. All he has to do is convince a handful of people to do the wrong thing. And here’s where Hole’s eventual problems start showing up. Douglas has this perverted relationship with Jan Sterling; she’s married to Richard Benedict, who’s stuck in a hole and Douglas is turning it into a big story. Wilder and the other writers never really explore Douglas’s motivations (alcohol provides a fast answer) in that situation. Instead, Douglas gets a more traditional, epical arc. An overcooked one.

But that overcooked character arc is in a gorgeously made film. Wilder has excellent composition, whether for dialogue scenes or the big vista shots of New Mexico.

Douglas and Wilder, somewhat separately, make Hole worthwhile. It’s just got its problems.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; written by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Arthur P. Schmidt; music by Hugo Friedhofer; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Chuck Tatum), Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa), Robert Arthur (Herbie Cook), Porter Hall (Jacob Q. Boot), Frank Cady (Al Federber), Richard Benedict (Leo Minosa), Ray Teal (Sheriff Gus Kretzer) and Frank Jaquet (Sam Smollett).


Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson)

Diary of a Country Priest is a somewhat trying experience, as so much of the viewer’s experience watching the film requires him or her to empathize with the titular protagonist, something that character is apparently incapable of doing.

Much in the film is made of the protagonist’s inexperience–something Claude Laydu plays perfectly–and director Bresson does little to suggest otherwise to the viewer. Most of Laydu’s scenes are on his own, writing his account of his day in his diary. It quickly becomes clear Laydu might not be the most reliable narrator of his experiences, which just forces the viewer to have to do more work.

Bresson leaves the viewer to ask all of the questions Laydu does not. Conversations matter more in where they go and what isn’t said than what Laydu discusses with people. Though not many people. Country Priest is a small film, set in a small church in a small parish with a small cast. If it weren’t for Laydu getting involved with the concerns of the local noble, there wouldn’t be enough story for a film.

That tight focus keeps the film distant. Bresson never visibly manipulates the story, just the lens through which the viewer experiences it. Only on a handful of occasions does it ever get truly annoying (like when teenager Nicole Ladmiral confides in Laydu and Bresson defers revealing that confidence).

The third act manages to be sensational and anticlimactic. Bresson, Laydu and photographer Léonce-Henri Burel pull it off though.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Bresson; screenplay by Bresson, based on the novel by Georges Bernanos; director of photography, Léonce-Henri Burel; edited by Paulette Robert; music by Jean-Jacques Grünenwald; released by L’Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique.

Starring Claude Laydu (Priest of Ambricourt), Jean Riveyre (Count), Adrien Borel (Priest of Torcy), Rachel Bérendt (Countess), Nicole Maurey (Miss Louise), Nicole Ladmiral (Chantal), Martine Lemaire (Séraphita Dumontel) and Antoine Balpêtré (Dr. Delbende).


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