★★★

To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks)

Whatever To Have and Have Not’s original intent—not just novel versus film but film in pre-production to film completed—what it ends up doing and doing better than maybe anything else ever is star-make. To Have and Have Not showcases Lauren Bacall in constantly imaginative ways, including how much you can like her when she’s not being very nice. And how good she is at not being very nice while still seeming like she’s immaculate. So Bacall’s an unenthusiastic ex-pat in 1940 in Martinique; the French have already fallen, the island run by Nazi-allied Vichy. Except the locals are pro-France but quiet about it in general. The United States isn’t in the war yet so there are Americans around the island. Including lead Humphrey Bogart. Now, To Have and Have Not is a Humphrey Bogart movie. You’re supposed to entertain the possibility he’s actually flirting with Dolores Moran, which Bacall gives him crap about but everyone—Bacall included—can see every time Bogart’s got a scene with Moran, he’s just clamoring to get back into the banter with Bacall. When Bacall’s offscreen in Have Not, which is an actual action movie with Nazis trying to get the good guys—including an adorable, hilarious drunk Walter Brennan—so there are stakes here—but any time Bacall’s not around, it’s all about getting back to her. The movie’s already got a big problem with the end, who knows what it’d be like without Bacall enchanting the whole thing.

Bogart’s got a boat and takes rich guys out fishing. Not exciting but it keeps him fed and best friend Brennan sufficiently drunk. He’s apolitical until fate drops Bacall into his proverbial lap (and later in the literal) while also taking away his payday. Now in a spot, he decides to help out friend, bar-owner, Frenchman, resistor Marcel Dalio. Dalio’s got some friends of friends who want to bring another friend to the island so then they can break yet another friend out of Devil’s Island, the French prison island. As long as it pays, Bogart’s fine with it. Because he’s going to at least get Bacall out of there before the local Vichy police (Dan Seymour is the boss in an okay but not great performance) starts stamping down harder. War’s coming, after all.

Throw in actual good guy Walter Szurovy for some ideological clashes with Bogart’s right-minded but mercenary approach, Moran as Szurovy’s wife who no one believes Bogart’s interested in, drunk Brennan getting into trouble, Hoagy Carmichael as the piano man, Sheldon Leonard as one of the cops–To Have and Have Not has everything; actually it’s excessive. And it’s beautifully made. Hawks does a great job with the direction. Especially of the actors, but in general he and photographer Sidney Hickox do an excellent job making the handful of sets feel like a whole world, without ever being constrained. It helps the action follows Bogart out onto the water. The more complicated shots are all the action thriller stuff, the more complicated lighting is all the Bacall and Bogart stuff. Hickox, presumably under Hawks’s direction, brings the shadows for those scenes. Even when it’s a daytime shot, they find some blinds to shade Bacall. It’s like the movie’s doing lighting tests on her or trying to psyche her out and see how she responds under pressure. The sort of proto-noir expressionist lighting never makes a scene and occasionally gets old. See, the audience already has a read on Bacall because her performance hits the requisite beats as far as the narrative goes, but just because Bacall doesn’t have a line doesn’t mean she’s not the focus of the moment.

And the famous “you know how to whistle” scene is pretty early in the picture. And it’s as good as everyone says. All because Bacall. During the second act the way the narrative distance works—Bacall clearly excelling but the film not giving her increased attention for it—kind of promises there’s going to be something worth it in the end. Yes, Bacall does get the final moment (plus a punctation), but she doesn’t get the third act itself. It’s still that action thriller with Bogart, albeit a lovestruck one.

Good script from Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, despite the movie not having an ending; some of the dialogue is phenomenal—at one point Bogart just starts grinning through most of it, positively giddy regardless of the danger because Bacall. Unfortunately that giddiness isn’t enough to cover for the resolve being so blah. Still. Good script.

Pretty good editing from Christian Nyby, who occasionally cuts a little too late and a little too soon and there are costar reactions in shots. Bacall watching Bogart and Brennan do their thing, Bogart watching Bacall walk then remembering he’s supposed to be listening too. It ends up being charming, even if its loose.

To Have and Have Not is good action thriller with a singular performance from Bacall, a strong, nimble one from Bogart, and solid work from everyone else. Even if they don’t make the most of the role (obviously not Carmichael, who’s awesome as the piano man). Hawks’s direction is excellent, writing’s good, just don’t have an ending. It’s a good film.

And Bacall makes it a classic one.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway; director of photography, Sidney Hickox; edited by Christian Nyby; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Harry), Lauren Bacall (Marie), Walter Brennan (Eddie), Marcel Dalio (Frenchy), Hoagy Carmichael (Cricket), Dolores Moran (Mme. Hellene de Bursac), Walter Szurovy (Paul de Bursac), Sheldon Leonard (Lt. Coyo), and Dan Seymour (Capt. M. Renard).



Waitress (2007, Adrienne Shelly)

For most of its runtime, Waitress is a character study. Writer and director Shelly does give the film an epical arc, which doesn’t get fully revealed until the third act (and, arguably, epilogue), but most of the film is spent watching Keri Russell, her character’s actions, reactions, inactions, and her performance. Russell is a small-town waitress in an undetermined Southern town stuck in a dead-end life. She’s married to an abusive prick (Jeremy Sisto), desperately trying to hide away enough money to escape him—her heart set on winning a major pie baking contest (Russell’s a pie-baking virtuoso)—she works in a local diner (appropriately a pie diner, so she at least gets to do what she loves and her two coworkers are good friends), and her life’s been stalled so long she can’t even remember when it was in motion.

Throughout the film, Shelly introduces a couple big expository devices to reveal more and more about Russell. First, she daydreams up her pie recipes, usually as a reaction to what’s going on in her life, usually what’s going wrong in her life. The second device comes later, after the inciting incident—turns out Russell’s pregnant, the result of an offscreen, definitely not enthusiastically consented night of martial relations (Sisto intentionally got her drunk). Russell’s miserable at the thought of being a mom; fellow waitresses, aforementioned good friends Cheryl Hines and director Shelly get Russell a pregnancy journal. One of the features is a place to write to the baby, which eventually gives Russell an outlet. And the audience a fuller picture of her thoughts and how she experiences the film’s events.

Because even though she’s got good friends Shelly and Hines, they’ve all got their secrets. And those secrets are the most important things in their lives. The only one who can see into Russell’s secrets is Andy Griffith, which seems like the most natural sentence in the world. Who else could.

Griffith’s the crotchety old man owner of the diner where Russell and company work. She’s the only one who likes him; he’s mean to everyone else. He’s just the owner, Lew Temple runs the place. Temple’s a crotchety middle-aged man who’s mean to everyone, Russell included. The reason Griffith’s so nice to Russell is because he sees something wonderful in her. So does Sisto as it turns out. And so does Russell’s new doctor, played by Nathan Fillion. While there’s some reciprocity in the first and third relationships—Russell gets nothing but despondence and multiple kinds of pain from being married to Sisto—Russell’s still being used by Griffith and Fillion. There’s a significant, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit power imbalance to the relationships, which Russell takes a while to fully understand.

It’s a great character arc for Russell and the film. Shelly’s got the plot down, just not the plotting of it. She establishes a deliberate, relaxed pace in the first act, speeding it up a little at the start of the second, but then skipping along as the film nears the halfway point. Whole weeks go by offscreen with character development on pause between scenes. Even with Sisto, whose intensified abuse changes Russell’s trajectory multiple times, there’s very little insight and even less deliberation. When things start getting difficult, Russell clamps up; it’s never clear how much her friends know about her home life, ditto Fillion (once their relationship develops, rather unprofessionally, past doctor and patient), and the journal entries become more sporadic and used for emphasis not insight.

It’s not exactly a rocky finish, but the film never slows down to find a new pace. It’s still successful—Shelly’s direction, writing, Russell’s phenomenal performance, the supporting performances, the crew—none of the quality dips, it’s just Shelly goes for aspirational instead of realistic. She’s trying to find a happy ending in it all, which is going to require a lot of contrivance, a lot of coincidence.

Great photography from Matthew Irving; he and Shelly create this gentle but strong light theme, very focused on the actors, emphasizing their performances. There are some great scenes of Russell and Fillion just listening to each other and considering the other’s words. And Russell’s constant waiting for Sisto’s explosions is terrifying. Sisto’s great. Fillion’s good too, but he’s (somewhat intentionally) never deep enough. It’s not a character study about him, after all.

Hines, Shelly, Griffith, Temple, they’re all excellent. Eddie Jemison has a small part and he’s a lot of fun.

Good music from Andrew Hollander, good editing from Annette Davey. Ramsey Avery’s production design is essential.

Waitress is outstanding. It’s got its issues, but thanks to Russell’s performance, Shelly’s directing, her script, the supporting cast… it’s outstanding. Even though the film gets inside Russell’s head, Shelly showcases her performance like it doesn’t. They’re a great team.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Adrienne Shelly; director of photography, Matthew Irving; edited by Annette Davey; production designer, Ramsey Avery; produced by Michael Roiff; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Keri Russell (Jenna), Jeremy Sisto (Earl), Nathan Fillion (Dr. Pomatter), Cheryl Hines (Becky), Adrienne Shelly (Dawn), Lew Temple (Cal), Eddie Jemison (Ogie), and Andy Griffith (Old Joe).


Gregory’s Girl (1980, Bill Forsyth)

At no point in Gregory’s Girl does writer and director Forsyth wait for the audience. He’s not hurried, he’s not hostile, he’s just not repeating himself. Ever. The result is a whimsical but grounded film, not exploring much more than its characters could handle and often trying to make space to find some everyday magic. Forsyth doesn’t establish the limits of this magic until he goes rather far with it, which sort of retroactively makes earlier scenes more in the same category. The film doesn’t have a jumpy narrative pace but it does have a speedy one. The pace is key to the film’s particular charm and second only in importance to leading man John Gordon Sinclair.

Sinclair is disarming, sincere, and awkward. His closest confidante, the film goes on to reveal (after the first “act”), is little sister Allison Forster. Sinclair’s home situation, which does get covered at the beginning, appears to be one of ships passing the night. The film introduces his father (Dave Anderson) and mentions his mother, but they’re not part of Sinclair’s regular day and the film is all about the regular days of its cast. When Forster comes in, she helps explain why Sinclair’s so awkward. It’s not just because he grew five inches over the last year to tower over everyone else at school, teachers included, but because instead of having teenage boys as his primary social influence, it’s soulful ten year-old Forster. She’s already got a beau of her own, in what might be the film’s most mature onscreen relationship; the tweens understand dating, the teenage girls understand dating, the teenage boys not so much.

Forsyth gets a lot of quiet humor out of Forster’s beau, Denis Criman. He’s a similarly soulful ten year-old. He and Sinclair have a great scene together.

Albeit one where Forsyth’s limited composition techniques gets in the way—Forsyth relies way too heavily on close-ups, which could be a budgetary thing, but it’d be nice to have a two shot for some of the banter; the two shots do eventually come in, at the end of the film for the… action-packed (at least from Sinclair’s perspective) finale. Their arrival isn’t just welcome, it’s noticeable. Gregory’s Girl never amps up the pace or drama. Forsyth never changes the gentle, lyrical, detached narrative distance.

Including when Forster comes in—sorry, there’s something else to talk about with that sequence. Forsyth juxtaposes soulful Forster, with her wise-beyond-her-years (or just appropriately pre-hormonal) understanding of coupling, with already graduated Douglas Sannachan coming back to visit his pals. While Sannachan is explaining the sexual conquests being a window cleaner allows, Forster is hanging back, waiting to give Sinclair better advice. Forsyth constantly plays with the idea of mutual exclusivities in the film. Boarish bullshitter versus sweet and sincere, for instance.

But then there’s also the whole football thing.

Soccer football.

In addition to all the boys getting interest in the girls—though the film doesn’t discount the possibility they could be interested in boys (Gregory’s Girl, which doesn’t have homophobia or bullying, is a decidedly un-American teen movie)—they’re interested in footy. One of the main plot lines involves football coach Jake D’Arcy demoting former star striker Sinclair (he grew, it’s not his fault, he’s got too much height now to walk properly) to goalie and getting a new striker. Turns out the best striker in the school is a girl, Dee Hepburn. Sinclair immediately falls for Hepburn, watching how she can control the ball, while D’Arcy goes on this “girls can’t play boys sports but wait she’s better” arc. Only it’s a really quiet arc. Meanwhile Hepburn’s got to fight the preconceived notions. For the first two “acts” (quotation marks because it’s pointless to think about the film epically), Forsyth splits the narrative between Sinclair, D’Arcy, and Hepburn. Once the football ends—once Sinclair outgrows it—he’s ready for romance.

Even if he doesn’t understand it.

The only other subplot to last until the finish is Robert Buchanan and Graham Thompson’s. They’re comic relief; the boys even more inept at the romance than Sinclair. They’re a lot of fun. Thompson’s the silent one, Buchanan’s the motormouth. Their subplot is mostly aside from Sinclair’s main one, but the threads intersect early on to lay the groundwork for a pay-off in the finale. It’s another of the lovely, deliberate moves in Forsyth’s script. If only he liked two shots more.

Nice photography from Michael Coulter, fun smooth jazz score from Colin Tully. John How’s cuts are always a little too rushed, especially with the lack of coverage, but maybe the lack of coverage is why the cuts are a little too rushed.

Forsyth’s got some big moves he saves for the end (might be nice if they’d been foreshadowed) and they’re more than worth the wait. Gregory’s Girl is a delightful peculiarity.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth; director of photography, Michael Coulter; edited by John Gow; music by Colin Tully; produced by Davina Belling and Clive Parsons; released by ITC.

Starring John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory), Allison Forster (Madeline), Dee Hepburn (Dorothy), Jake D’Arcy (Phil Menzies), Clare Grogan (Susan), Billy Greenlees (Steve), Robert Buchanan (Andy), Denis Criman (Richard), Graham Thompson (Charlie), Douglas Sannachan (Billy), and Chic Murray (Headmaster).



RELATED

Narc (2002, Joe Carnahan)

In addition to starring in Narc, Ray Liotta also produced, which makes sense because the film gives him a great part. Narc is about disgraced ex-cop Jason Patric getting back on the job because the department (Detroit, with Toronto standing in but never noticeably) has a dead cop and they need a fresh set of eyes. Why Patric? Because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie? Ostensibly it’s because Patric was an undercover narcotics officer (subtle title nod) and the dead cop was also an undercover narcotics officer (something writer and director Carnahan somehow manages to forget to establish, but hey, the script’s often messy). Basically it’s a Hail Mary pass.

Only Patric’s gotten to be a pretty okay guy since leaving the coppers and wife Krista Bridges doesn’t want him going back. He hems and haws a little bit about it, but he’s not going to listen to her, of course. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Also because Carnahan avoids doing real scenes between Bridges and Patric like the film depends on it. And it probably does. Narc relies on Patric to be able to give the impression of being the lead in some kind of character study when it turns out Narc isn’t going to be about Patric at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Patric takes one look at the files and decides the department needs to bring back Liotta, who’s the bad cop the good cops love (he beats up suspects, plants evidence, whatever). The silly liberals in the city have taken Liotta off the case—even though he knew the murdered cop (Alan Van Sprang in flashbacks)—and he’s got a great conviction rate. Patric convinces boss Chi McBride (great in a nothing part) to bring Liotta back and now it’s time for the second act. Second act basically becomes a study of Liotta, with occasional cuts to Bridges being mad at Patric and Patric ignoring her because it’s a cop movie and silly woman. Also there are these gorgeous shots of Patric by himself in the urban blight considering his existence, set to the wondrous Cliff Martinez score, with even more wondrous Alex Nepomniaschy photography. Narc often looks and sounds fantastic. Not so much when Carnahan’s doing this silly quartered screen thing showing Patric and Liotta’s amazing investigatory skills; the sound design is intentionally confusing and pointless. Kind of like the amazing investigatory skills—all Liotta and Patric end up doing is showing the dead cop’s photograph to various Black guys in bad neighborhoods. There’s a lot of lip service paid to the possible racial unrest Liotta will bring to the investigation—because he’s the racist bad cop good cops love, even Black commander McBride—but all the actual bad guys are white. Does Liotta ever realize he’s wrong based on empirical evidence? No. But whatever. It’s not like the investigatory aspect of Narc is its strength. Carnahan doesn’t write a great mystery, he directs a great gritty character study and pretends his script is going to match. It eventually doesn’t (the third act), but thanks to Liotta’s performance and the perception of Patric’s at the time, Carnahan is able to then pretend he’s been doing an intentionally peculiarly plotted mystery the whole time.

And he gets away with it. Narc is not, in the end, a success. It does not realize its initial ambitions or narrative gesture. But the film gets away with it because of the intensity of the acting, intensity of the filmmaking. Who cares if Patric’s character entirely changes in the last thirty minutes. Maybe we never knew him at all, maybe we were just projecting, maybe Liotta was just projecting, maybe everyone was just projecting onto Patric’s tabula rasa. We weren’t, of course, and not just because it’s impossible to project onto Patric; his handlebar mustache and soul patch would get in the way.

But Carnahan is able to get away with it, because of built-up goodwill and (apparently) de facto liberal sensitivities.

In its third act, Narc becomes one of those mysteries where the resolution doesn’t have to succeed so much as not screw up the previous two acts too much. A bummer to be sure, but still an extremely well-made film with two great lead performances. Even if Patric’s character goes absurdly to pot.

Carnahan and his production designers, Greg Beale and Taavo Soodor, do spectacular work. Especially on the limited budget. The limited budget kind of perturbs when you realize it’d have been very cheap to do those much needed scenes between Patric and Bridges and Carnahan just chokes on it instead. That Nepomniaschy photography is great, that Martinez score is great, Liotta is great, Patric is (mostly) great. So what if the second half of the script’s shaky and Carnahan doesn’t know how to establish ground situations.

The script is just a delivery system for the filmmaking, the acting. Not ideal, not successful, but… good enough. Especially since the dialogue’s solid (there’s just not enough of it).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Joe Carnahan; director of photography, Alex Nepomniaschy; edited by John Gilroy; music by Cliff Martinez; production designers, Greg Beale and Taavo Soodor; produced by Michelle Grace, Ray Liotta, Diane Nabatoff, and Julius R. Nasso; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jason Patric (Nick Tellis), Ray Liotta (Henry Oak), Krista Bridges (Audrey Tellis), Chi McBride (Captain Cheevers), Tony De Santis (Medical Examiner Art Harlan), Anne Openshaw (Kathryn Calvess), Bishop Brigante (Eugene Sheps), and Alan Van Sprang (Michael Calvess).


The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophüls)

The Reckless Moment is self-indulgent. But in a remarkable way. A remarkable and good way. Director Ophüls and star Joan Bennett both find a way to get at the core of the story, which is a very limited character study of Bennett. The film is occasionally fantastic and sensational—though never melodramatic, even in the plotting—as upper-class Bennett gets involved with scumbag James Mason. Sure, he’s cultured and charming because he’s James Mason, but he’s Irish; he’s cultured and charming in a decidedly not WASP-enough way. But it’s always just about Bennett trying to manage her life.

Bennett and family live on Balboa Island, a nouveau riche Los Angeles suburb. Besides Bennett, there’s father-in-law Henry O’Neill, there’s all-American tween son David Bair, there’s art school daughter Geraldine Brooks. There’s also the maid, played by Frances E. Williams (a Black woman), who doesn’t even get credited even though she’s in every third scene with lines so thanks for the ick 1949.

Williams is important too.

Anyway.

The movie opens with Bennett heading into L.A. unexpectedly to meet with Shepperd Strudwick in a cheap motel. Not like that. In the closed bar, in one of the many scenes in Moment where screenwriters Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg give the film just a little bit of detail and Ophüls and his crew are able to amp it up. Lots of individual parts firing just right is what makes Moment such a special success. Because it’s also very noir-y. But also not.

Sorry—back to Strudwick. He’s carrying on with seventeen year-old daughter Brooks—she’ll be eighteen next month he tells Bennett during their initial confrontation. He’s one of the low class people Brooks has met because artists and he’s willing to give her up for cash money, something Brooks doesn’t want to hear from her mother when Bennett gets back. Family drama and some really effective lighter scenes between Bennett and son Bair ensue—Bennett having to single parent Bair gives her a lot of subtle character development. Consistently too. It’s always good. Because Bennett, Ophüls, the screenwriters.

Dad is a post-WWII civil engineer who’s making a fortune—presumably—traveling the globe and rebuilding war-torn countries with U.S. Steel. It’s important because it’s American and a success story. Bennett very knowingly, very deliberately revels in her class status and the privileges it brings. She wouldn’t initially be so sympathetic if daughter Brooks weren’t so obviously in the wrong and beau Strudwick so obviously a creep. Brooks is Moment’s weakest performance, by a lot. She’s all right by the end, but she’s a disaster before Bennett starts having to be a mama lion.

And Bennett has to be a mama lion because it turns out Strudwick’s a gambling man and he just can’t win. As collateral, he’s provided loanshark slash blackmailer slash general scumbag James Mason with all seventeen year-old Brooks’s love letters. They could ruin her. In more ways than one it turns out. Enough so Bennett has to deal with Mason at the same time she tries to deal with the Strudwick situation and get the house ready for Christmas. Reckless Moment has a very short present action. It’s a tight, noir-y thriller. Only it’s a character study, which is what makes it so special.

Bennett dips her toe in the water of disrepute and it doesn’t just fill her life with it, it changes how she experiences her life because of the new situations it brings. It turns out to be an awesome role for Bennett.

It’s a fairly good role for Mason too. He’s got his own subplot about crushing on Bennett, which she doesn’t know about and wouldn’t believe if she did. The only time Mason’s off is when he lays on the Irish too much, usually when he’s talking about Ireland, which isn’t too often. Not sure why Mason’s top-billed, other than patriarchy (though Bennett’s character would clearly approve of the man getting top billing… by would she by the end?).

Good supporting cast: O’Neill’s fine as the father-in-law, Bair’s amusing, Williams’s really good, Brooks’s uneven but comes out all right by the end, Strudwick’s appropriately scuzzy. Great black and white photography from Burnett Guffey. Nice editing and music (Gene Havlick and Hans J. Salter, respectively). Bennett’s house is absurdly big, but Frank Tuttle’s set decoration does a lot for the picture.

The Reckless Moment is short, quiet, and rather good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Max Ophüls; screenplay by Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg, based on an adaptation by Mel Dinelli and Robert E. Kent and a story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Geraldine Brooks (Beatrice Harper), David Bair (David Harper), Frances E. Williams (Sybil), Henry O’Neill (Tom Harper), and Shepperd Strudwick (Ted Darby).



Heatwave (1982, Phillip Noyce)

Heatwave is not a film noir. It seems like it ought to be one, but it’s not. It’s got all the pieces to be a film noir, but the way director Noyce assembles them doesn’t result in noir. There are occasionally these heavily stylized slow motion sequences. Sometimes Noyce and editor John Scott emphasize relief, sometimes violence, sometimes heat. The film’s narrative distance isn’t noir enough. It’s a really cool narrative distance, but it’s not at all noir. It’s a breakneck paced thriller, only with two protagonists who don’t realize they’re in a thriller. They think they’re in entirely different stories.

Second-billed Richard Moir (who’s actually the lead) is an architect whose big new project is running into some snags. The project is a futuristic condo, made mostly of glass (Noyce never gives the model a close-up so nothing’s too specific), with trees inside and natural lighting and so on. To get the project built, the developers are going to kick out the working class residents and tear down their homes. The project is called “Eden”; Heatwave is perfectly matter-of-fact with quite a few things. It barely runs ninety minutes and has a bunch of characters, lots of story; Noyce and co-writer Marc Rosenberg never waste time, they’re pragmatic to the point of obvious but it works because Moir’s astoundingly naive. So long as he doesn’t have to compromise his designs, Moir doesn’t really care about anything. Wife Anna Maria Monticelli, who also works with him in some unexplained capacity, is a social climber. Moir’s from a working class background, Monticelli’s a blue blood. She wants to show the world her man’s made good. He’s indifferent but happy to play along; he’s getting recognized for his amazing architectural designs, everything else is gravy. But not even gravy worth caring about too much.

Then there’s top-billed Judy Davis. She’s a blue blood who went to college, got radicalized, now tries to help the working class with their plight. She works for independent, crusading journalist Carole Skinner. Skinner’s not a blue blood and she lends Davis some cred. There’s a non-subplot about Skinner and Moir being good friends before Moir went to the U.S. to study architecture and get better indoctrinated with capitalism. When he got back they weren’t friends any more. Or so the movie says. Moir’s got zero reaction to Skinner’s eventual mysterious disappearance. Notice I just gave Davis’s paragraph away? Gave it to Moir? Because the movie does the same thing, over and over.

It’s fine, it works out. But Moir’s nowhere near as interesting as Davis. At least in terms of performance. Moir’s just aloof and naive. Kind of pseudo-preppy. He’s constantly tagging along with the real alpha males, developer Chris Haywood and lawyer John Gregg. Davis gets to do a lot more. Even when Moir gets interested in Skinner’s disappearance, it’s only because he’s not cool with how scummy Haywood and Gregg are willing to go evicting residents. And because not-independent newspaper reporter and fun old guy John Meillon wants Moir to get involved.

Moir does stay involved for his own reasons… primarily Davis. He’s got the hots for Davis because she says and thinks all the things he didn’t know he kind of wanted to say or think. As for Davis… her being interested too is one of the film’s plotting efficiencies. Maybe one Noyce should’ve taken more time with, but Davis is always getting shafted on story time.

She gets a decent amount of action, but she also ends up with a bunch of the exposition. Noyce has this great device for exposition—characters sitting, listening to the radio. Because it’s too hot to do much besides sit and listen to the radio. Heatwave takes place during a winter heatwave. The film starts before Christmas, ends on New Year’s. Everyone is miserably hot, visibly miserably hot, no one ever complains, they just endure it as best they can. It’s a great built-in constant, agitating the plot whenever needed.

Heatwave’s efficient to a fault.

Excellent performance from Davis, really good one from Moir. Haywood’s good, Gregg’s good. Meillon’s decent. He’s functional for the script more than anything else. Meillon’s able to imply depth; the script doesn’t want it from him. It would be really nice if Gillian Jones were able to imply depth. She’s got a small but important role and… it’s not a good performance. Might not be Jones’s fault, given her character and the character’s writing. But still. That aspect of the film being better might have brought it up to another level.

Then again Jones is one of the noir pieces and Heatwave isn’t a noir.

Great photography Vincent Monton. Good music from Cameron Allan. Ross Major’s production design is another plus. Noyce’s direction is extravagant but never self-indulgent.

Heatwave is a rather good stiflingly hot Christmas, not noir but noir-y, stylish conspiracy thriller.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by Noyce and Marc Rosenberg, based on a story by Mark Stiles and Tim Gooding; director of photography, Vincent Monton; edited by John Scott; music by Cameron Allan; production designer, Ross Major; produced by Hilary Linstead; released by Roadshow Film Distributors.

Starring Judy Davis (Kate Dean), Richard Moir (Stephen West), Chris Haywood (Peter Houseman), Bill Hunter (Robert Duncan), John Gregg (Philip Lawson), Anna Maria Monticelli (Victoria West), John Meillon (Freddie Dwyer), Dennis Miller (Mick Davies), Carole Skinner (Mary Ford), Gillian Jones (Barbie Lee Taylor), Frank Gallacher (Dick Molnar), Tui Bow (Annie), and Don Crosby (Jim Taylor).


This post is part of the Hotter’nell Blogathon hosted by Steve of MovieMovieBlogBlog II.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)

The longest continuous stretch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about fifteen minutes (the film runs eighty). Small California city doctor Kevin McCarthy and his long-lost lady friend Dana Wynter have just spent the night holed up in his office, hiding from their neighbors, who have all been replaced by “pod people.” The pods are giant seedpods. They birth human facsimiles, down to scars, memories, and current injuries. They just don’t have any emotion. The evening before is another lengthy sequence, but not continuous like this fifteen minute one, which comes at the end of the second act. It doesn’t exactly end the second act because the third act is really wonky (Body Snatchers had just about as much studio post-production interference as a film can have, down to the studio literally cropping director Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s framing by ten percent).

After a big hint McCarthy and Wynter consummated their reuniting—it’s a shame McCarthy doesn’t get to talk about it, from his third scene in the film he’s constantly chatting up the ladies—the bad guys arrive and give McCarthy, Wynter, and the audience an information dump. It’s all about where the pods come from—outer space—and how McCarthy and Wynter are just going to love being passionless. Despite being a tell-all moment, the dump doesn’t feel like one. Daniel Mainwaring’s script is great—especially when characters get to monologue (save when Wynter gets lovey-dovey in an even more panicked moment)—and the actors’ not quite emotive enough delivery is perfect. Siegel does a great job directing his actors; at least the actors who matter. The occasional gas station attendant gets a pass.

As McCarthy and Wynter are faced with their loveless (sexless?) future, they start to break down before thinking their way out of the situation only to end up betrayed by their humanity and on the run into the mountains surrounding the town and, presumably, the third act.

But that third act is the wonky thing I mentioned before. See, Body Snatchers has a framing device—McCarthy telling disbelieving doctors and state troopers about what’s going on in his hometown. The pods have taken over, they’ve got to believe him, it’s almost too late to save everyone from being the same! Okay, he probably doesn’t say the thing about being the same at the beginning because part of the wonkiness is how much Body Snatchers just gives up on internal consistency. There’s three layers to the narrative. McCarthy on screen in the framing, McCarthy on screen in the flashback, McCarthy narrating the flashback (from the frame). The third, the narration, proves the most problematic in the third act. There are plot holes to jump over or at least to address and the narration plows over them instead. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially since it takes the film away from omnipresent protagonist McCarthy at the end.

Though it doesn’t help the frame already forces a protracted distance from McCarthy, which the narration and the actual story help to correct. Right up until the third act smacks it even further away than before.

The entire thing hinges on McCarthy. Body Snatchers isn’t about the fear of being replaced, it’s about the panic of being in danger. When the film starts and McCarthy is hearing about all the slightly weird stuff going on in town, people desperate to get an appointment then cancelling, kids not thinking their parents are their parents anymore, the opening has the audience primed for how it’s all going to play out. It plays out gradually, with recent divorcee McCarthy pursuing even recenter divorcee Wynter as fast as he can. He literally can’t keep his hands off of her. There’s the lovey dovey in the script and there’s some chemistry thanks to the direction, but you know McCarthy’s crazy about Wynter because McCarthy appears to be uncontrollably crazy about Wynter. And their romance subplot introduces some more information about the goings on before the first pod person shows up.

McCarthy’s pal, King Donovan, ruins their date because he’s found what appears to be a body and wants McCarthy to take a look at it. For a while, Donovan and Carolyn Jones (as his wife) are the main supporting leads. Because they’re panicked and they’re active so they end up around McCarthy. When it seems like Wynter isn’t going to be part of this core, McCarthy brings her into it. Very smart script, plotting-wise. Once McCarthy and Donovan start investigating, they’re going to discover missing bodies, strange gatherings in suburbia, and what’s better than dry martinis for putting on the steaks.

Because even though they’re in danger of being replaced by the pod people, they’re not going to miss out on steaks and martinis. It’s the fifties and they are Americans, after all. Panic can only drive you so far. If you skip martinis, the pod people win. And, somehow, magnificently, it all works. When Body Snatchers is being quiet about the culture it’s portraying, it excels. When it tries to explain what that portrayal means… the opposite. Are the “pod people”—who are without love, desire, ambition, faith—stand-ins for communists? Stand-ins for McCarthyists (no relation)? McCarthy (actor Kevin) apparently thought it was a comment on “Madison Avenue”-types. But it seems like something, only it’s really unfocused and the narration plays directly against what’s described and portrayed in the action. By the end, McCarthy is just ranting nonsensically, not because he’s panicked, not because he’s exhausted, but because the script doesn’t have the answer.

Excellent acting from McCarthy throughout, with really strong support from Donovan and Larry Gates. Jones is good. Wynter is… often good, sometimes thin. She’s got too much of an English accent, which the film explains by her living in England for five years but… really?

Jean Willes and Virginia Christine are good in the other two biggest roles. Most of the townsfolk, pod or not, are background.

Great direction from Siegel. You wish you could see the other ten percent of his framing. There are a lot of night exteriors and Fredericks’s photography on them is glorious. Fredericks’s photography is superb throughout, but those night shots are exceptional.

Good enough score from Carmen Dragon, good enough editing from Robert S. Eisen.

Great production design from Ted Haworth.

Even with the three times clunky finish—even without the framing device, it’s impossible to imagine what the film would play like without the added narration and since that narration screws up the third act, there’s not a lot going right outside the spectacular technical filmmaking-Invasion of the Body Snatchers is exquisite. It’s a step higher than almost great (so pretty great?). It just should and could be better. And—rather frustratingly—would have been better, had the studio just kept their hands off it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on a story by Jack Finney; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Robert S. Eisen; music by Carmen Dragon; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr. Danny Kauffman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Teddy Belicec), Jean Willes (Sally Withers), Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Virginia Christine (Wilma Lentz), and Tom Fadden (Uncle Ira Lentz).


Secret People (1952, Thorold Dickinson)

Secret People is a very peculiar propaganda picture. It’s mostly set in 1937, almost entirely involving Italian immigrants, and it’s very pro-British. The film downplays the idea fascist regimes are dangerous (fascist regimes in 1937, remember) while getting behind the idea of doing whatever the British government says, even if what they say is appease. Or don’t not appease. Secret People, if it had been made in 1938 and not 1951, would have been very pro-Chamberlain. Only it’s not from 1938, it’s from 1951 so there’s seemingly got to be a reason director and co-writer Dickinson is so wishy-washy. Because the propaganda of Secret People isn’t about a fascist Italian general (Hugo Schuster) killing an Italian Gandhi-type, but about how anti-fascist groups are bad and you should rat them out to the cops. The cops who will then use you as bait to catch the anti-fascists and almost get everyone you know killed because they kind of meander when it comes to dangerous work. Literal tea time and that sort of thing.

So it’s weird propaganda. And the finale is problematic. Dickinson desperately tries to go for melodrama and heart strings and kind of fails at both. It’s a strange failure too because the direction’s nothing special. Dickinson and cinematographer Gordon Dines fill the relatively mundane film with a bunch of great sequences, only to screw up the most important one. It needn’t be the most important sequence of the film; it’s the script’s most important moment (and the script fails) because the last third of the film is a bit of a mess. But even that messy third, right until the last scene, is at least rather well-made. Dickinson knows how to direct the script, he just doesn’t really know how to write it. And he’s got a great cast.

The film opens in 1930, with Italian immigrant to Britain Charles Goldner finding out his old friend, the aforementioned Italian Gandhi-type, is sending his daughters to Goldner for their safety. Turns out news of their father’s execution beats them to England, they just don’t know. So very, very heavy stuff, with Goldner doing a great job comforting mostly older sister Valentina Cortese. The younger sister, as soon as the film jumps ahead, is going to be Audrey Hepburn. Until then, the younger sister is pretty much off screen.

The time jump is seven years. It starts with Cortese, now working in Goldner’s cafe (and helping make it more successful), and Hepburn, now Hepburn (and, we’ll soon find out, an aspiring dancer), getting their legal British citizenship status. Like good immigrants. There’s even a line about how British only like good immigrants who don’t start trouble. At the time, it seems like the guy saying it is supposed to be a xenophobic dick but maybe he’s not? At least, not on reflection after watching the rest of the picture.

Anyway, Cortese sees a poster advertising Schuster coming to the UK on a speaking tour. Got to hear both sides of the fascist nationalist debates, after all. Again, at the time, it seems like Secret People is anti-Schuster, anti-fascist. Because, after all, he did murder Cortese and Hepburn’s wonderful dad.

Goldner sees Cortese is upset and decides—thanks to them being legal residents—it’s time to go to Paris for the weekend. In Paris, Cortese runs into her old paramour (Serge Reggiani) who has become a dashing international journalist. Only he’s not really a journalist, he’s an anti-fascist resistance fighter. And he tells his people he can get Cortese to help them assassinate Schuster.

Meanwhile Cortese just thinks she’s found the love of her life again and Hepburn is about to break out in at a society function doing a dance solo. Goldner, however, he can tell there’s something up with Reggiani. And so begins the thriller. It turns out to be a very different kind of thriller, a deliberately paced one, with some great direction from Dickinson and some fine writing. But the picture’s all about Cortese and her performance. It’s phenomenal. Until the third act when everything gets a little too silly, then it’s just good but they’ve also taken the movie away from her so whatever she can do is something.

For most of its runtime, Secret People doesn’t just succeed in spite of its weird propaganda elements, it excels, all thanks to Cortese’s performance, the peculiar plotting, the strong direction. But Cortese holds it all together. The other performances are all strong, they just don’t make the film work. Cortese makes the whole thing work, whether it’s her romance with Reggiani, her protective and supportive sister stuff with Hepburn, her vulnerable but not relationship with Goldner; all of it.

Goldner’s good, though he gets less and less to do as the action moves on. Hepburn’s good; she gets some great moments, but not a great character arc. At least not on screen. Her strongest scenes are when her mostly off-screen arc breaks through to the main action. She doesn’t really get to do much character development; after all, she’s just going to be caricatured so Dickinson can get the ending he wants.

Reggiani’s uneven, but convincingly horny as he’s always trying to seduce Cortese until it’s time to give her a bomb. In a better version of Secret People, Reggiani’s character would be just as important as Cortese’s. But in this one, he’s not. So the uneven rarely matters.

Megs Jenkins is great as Goldner’s live-in cafe employee and maybe housekeeper. It’s unclear what she does in either the cafe or the living quarters, but Jenkins does all of it rather well.

Secret People is shockingly good, considering all its big problems; sometimes excellent direction from Dickinson, the surprising storyline, and the leads’ acting makes the difference.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Thorold Dickinson; screenplay by Christianna Brand, Dickinson, and Wolfgang Wilhelm, based on a story by Dickinson and Joyce Cary; director of photography, Gordon Dines; edited by Peter Tanner; music by Roberto Gerhard; produced by Sidney Cole; released by General Film Distributors Ltd.

Starring Valentina Cortese (Maria), Serge Reggiani (Louis), Charles Goldner (Anselmo), Audrey Hepburn (Nora), Megs Jenkins (Penny), Irene Worth (Miss Jackson), Reginald Tate (Inspector Eliot), and Hugo Schuster (General Galbern).


The Scapegoat (1959, Robert Hamer)

Despite Bette Davis playing a French dowager countess, The Scapegoat always feels very British. It’s probably exaggerated a little because it takes place in France, features mostly British people (save American Irene Worth) playing French people. Nicole Maurey is the only actual French person in the film, certainly the only one with a French accent. It draws some attention to her and how little she fits with the rest of the film, but it somehow works pretty well, which the film acknowledges enough to take for granted.

Scapegoat is also a little strange because it’s a character study of lead Alec Guinness, who’s in the middle of a peculiar mystery. The film opens with Guinness arriving in France on holiday; he’s a bored bachelor school teacher who’s given up on doing anything but teaching French to rich little British snots. He goes to France every year for the holiday and this time he’s thinking of just staying. He gets his wish in the form of… Alec Guinness. See, turns out Guinness has a French double and his double is a French nobleman who’s got land, title, and a whole bunch of debt. French Guinness is also at least a sociopath and always up to some kind of no good, having—it turns out—just ducked out on wife Worth after she’s suffered a miscarriage, but he also skipped out on mistress Maurey. Neither woman ends up getting an explanation because when Guinness gets home to his estate, he’s not French Guinness, he’s British Guinness. The double got him pass out drunk, switched places, disappeared.

Going forward—British Guinness is always going to be Guinness and French Guinness is always going to be French Guinness. So Guinness doesn’t really get particularly interested in why French Guinness has changed places with him, as life on the estate is an unhappy mess. French Guinness had left under the pretense he’d had a schizophrenic mental breakdown and needed to go to Paris to party. As much as any Alec Guinness, French or otherwise, is going to party. All by himself. No families, mistresses, doctors. And nobody except daughter Annabel Bartlett really seemed to care. But Guinness Guinness is overwhelmed at all the double has around him. He’s got a great kid, a sympathetic wife, a mistress, an estate, a failing but beloved business, and a cranky but not actually dangerous bedridden mum, Davis. Guinness tries to fix French Guinness’s life, which is the character study. But there’s still the mystery. Even if Guinness doesn’t acknowledge it.

That mystery comes back in the last twenty minutes of the film. The first twenty minutes are kind of slow, the next fifty breeze, the last twenty are a little awkward. Guinness is never appropriately suspicious, there’s not enough with Bartlett in the finale, and the resolution is too abrupt. Those reasons, more than everyone speaking with a British accent save Maurey, are why the film feels so British. It’s almost like director Hamer is trying to direct a slightly different, more comedic mystery script while the script is actually trying not to be comedic or mysterious. Only Hamer wrote the script; based on a Gore Vidal adaptation of the novel. So I want to assume it’s Vidal who turned it into this character study but who knows. Because, based on a summary, the novel sounds a bit more melodramatic.

It works out pretty well in the end, all things considered, but just makes it.

Guinness is phenomenal. The script gives him these great quiet reflection scenes without any narration—his narration is always matter-of-fact and goes away after a while; his reflection scenes are always beyond subtle. He’s exceptionally patient. Then as French Guinness, he’s got this subtle character arc, which the script sort of hints at but Guinness takes it a different direction. It’s rather good.

The special effects putting Guinness on screen twice are all good. Hamer never goofs off too much with it. He’s got an enthusiastic workman quality to his direction here, with cinematographer Paul Beeson helping a bit, and the special effects scenes are just the same. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a scene.

Of the supporting performances, Davis’s is the most fun. She’s got maybe three scenes and manages to imply a character arc. Bartlett’s performance is the most important because she’s the reason Guinness gets so interested. See, French Guinness—despite driving her into town each week for a music lesson (but really so he could go see Maurey)—he always wanted a boy. Guinness has no such prejudice. He also doesn’t have any animosity with Worth, which French Guinness seemed to have cultivated. Worth’s fine. She rarely gets time enough to develop her character. Pamela Brown has a really good scene opposite “brother” Guinness (she’s otherwise background). So all the acting is good or better.

The Scapegoat just has tone problems the conclusion doesn’t resolve satisfactorily enough, which… seems very British to me.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Hamer; screenplay by Hamer, adaptation by Gore Vidal, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Jack Harris; music by Bronislau Kaper; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Alec Guinness (John Barratt), Annabel Bartlett (Marie-Noel), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Irene Worth (Francoise), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Peter Bull (Aristide), Pamela Brown (Blanche), and Bette Davis (The Countess).



The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937, George Fitzmaurice)

The Emperor’s Candlesticks starts with an exceptional display of chemistry from Robert Young and Maureen O’Sullivan. They’re at the opera, it’s the late nineteenth century, it’s a masked costume ball, Young is a Grand Duke dressed as Romeo, and O’Sullivan is the sun.

Then it turns out O’Sullivan is working with a bunch of Polish nationalists who want to kidnap Young and ransom him for a political prisoner getting a pardon from the Czar (Young’s dad). Young and O’Sullivan aren’t the leads of the picture, the leads of the picture are William Powell and Luise Rainer. Powell’s an ostensibly apolitical Polish noble who’s more interested in philandering than revolting, Rainer’s a Russian noble who’s a professional spy. So Powell gets the mission to bring Young’s letter to the Czar and get the prisoner freed. Simultaneously, Rainer’s compatriots have discovered Powell’s actually a spy too. So she’s charged with bringing evidence of his treachery to St. Petersburg.

They both have a mutual acquaintance in Henry Stephenson, who wants Powell to take a pair of candlesticks to a Russian princess Stephenson is courting. The candlesticks have this awesome hidden compartment and Powell’s more than happy to do Stephenson the favor, since the hidden compartment is perfect for the letter he’s got to transport.

Powell gets ahead of himself and puts the note in before taking possession of the candlesticks, which Stephenson wants to have delivered to Powell at the train station. Seems like everything’s going to be fine, until—just missing Powell—Rainer pays Stephenson a visit and he can’t resist showing her the hidden compartment either. Powell’s worried about getting his document into Russia, Rainer’s worried about getting her documents out of Poland. It doesn’t take much for Rainer to charm Stephenson into letting her deliver the candlesticks to his lady friend. Rainer puts her documents in the other candlestick; they’re distinguished by some slight damage.

So there’s already the trouble—for Powell—of catching up to Rainer and getting at the candlesticks. But then there’s Bernadine Hayes, Rainer’s maid, who’s let thief Donald Kirke talk her into robbing her mistress of her jewelry… and her candlesticks. So then there’s going to be trouble for everyone, leading to a sometimes joint effort from Powell and Rainer, sometimes separate, across the continent. Powell’s mission has a timeline (the prisoner’s execution is set and, therefore, Young’s is as well).

Powell and Rainer falling in love doesn’t help things, especially for her, since she knows about her mission and its repercussions for Powell (he’ll be arrested, then shot by firing squad), while Powell is just trying to make sure neither the prisoner or the Grand Duke run out of time.

Powell and Rainer falling for each other pretty early, which works out well because they’ve got to bring enough chemistry to overshadow the memory of Young and O’Sullivan’s at the beginning. They do, with Rainer doing the heavier lifting as she’s falling for a man she’s condemning, but the film’s got to keep that angle pretty light—Powell’s whole persona in the picture is based on him not acting at all like a secret agent, but a playboy, including when he’s hustling to get the candlesticks. He’s doing it—he tells Rainer—because as a gentleman he should be aiding a lady in distress. Little does he know he’s causing Rainer a great deal more distress than she anticipated.

With the exception of Frank Morgan’s out-of-place introduction (he’s Young’s sidekick, in and out of captivity), Candlesticks is a joyous. Powell and Rainer are wonderful, O’Sullivan and Young are great, Stephenson’s fun. Morgan’s a little much but not enough to hurt the experience. And Morgan’s fine, he just takes up time Young could be spending with O’Sullivan.

Fitzmaurice’s direction is good. Every once in a while Candlesticks will go to second unit exteriors, which gives it a nice scale. With the exception of a (second unit-fueled) montage sequence, Conrad A. Nervig’s editing is poor. Lots of harsh cuts, a handful of severe jump cuts. Some of it is lack of coverage, but Nervig doesn’t have a good rhythm. Luckily the actors are so good and the Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe script is so strong, Nervig’s rough editing doesn’t do much damage. It’s occasionally grating.

Otherwise, the film’s technically solid.

Thanks to Powell and Rainer (and Young and O’Sullivan), The Emperor’s Candlesticks is a constant delight.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe, based on a novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; music by Franz Waxman; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Baron Stephan Wolensky), Luise Rainer (Countess Olga Mironova), Robert Young (Grand Duke Peter), Maureen O’Sullivan (Maria Orlich), Bernadene Hayes (Mitzi Reisenbach), Donald Kirke (Anton), Frank Morgan (Col. Baron Suroff), and Henry Stephenson (Prince Johann).


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