Monday, 29 December 2008

Around the World in 80 Days

Movie Review: Around the World in 80 Days

Year of Release: 1956
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Anderson
Cast: David Niven, Mario Moreno "Cantinflas", Shirley MacLaine, Robert Newton

Plot outline: A Victorian Englishman bets that with the new steamships and railways he can do what the title says (IMDb).

T
his mammoth and mad pictorial rendering of the classic novel by Jules Verne is a sprawling conglomeration of refined English comedy, giant-screen travel panoramics and slam-bang Keystone burlesque. It makes like a wild adventure picture and, with some forty famous actors in "bit" roles, it also takes on the characteristic of a running recognition game. It is noisy with sound effects and music. It is also overwhelmingly large in the process. It runs for two hours fifty-five minutes (not counting an intermission). And it is, undeniably, quite a show. Whether the cinema purists will immediately and gratefully concede that the producer has improved the breed of movies is something else again. The unities of content and method are not detectable in his splattered form. He and his people have commandeered the giant screen and stereophonic sound, turned loose in a cosmic cutting-room, with a pipe organ in one corner and all the movies ever made to toss around. The eccentric pattern, thus established, is continued expansively. There is naught but extravagant improvising in the subsequent adventures of Phileas Fogg (David Niven). Once he and his comical valet, the non-decript Passepartout (Mario Moreno "Cantinflas"), are launched on their wagered endeavor to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days, the wraps are off. Anything can happen. And many varieties of things do. Outside of David Niven and "Cantinflas", there are Shirley MacLaine as Princess Aouda; Robert Newton as Fix, the detective; and an assortment of bit players ranging from Noel Coward as a British employment agent to Jack Oakie as the captain of the S. S. Henrietta. Even so, all and sundry play their roles honorably. Is the whole thing too exhausting? It's a question of how much you can take.

My judgement: **1/2 out 4 stars

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Moulin Rouge

Movie Review: Moulin Rouge

Year of Release: 1952
Country of Origin: UK
Director: John Huston
Cast: José Ferrer, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Suzanne Flon, Claude Nollier

Plot outline: A fictional account of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris' bohemian sub-culture in and around the burlesque palace, the Moulin Rouge (IMDb).

Based on the novel by Pierre La Mure, John Huston’s lavish portrayal of the life and loves of the post-impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec falls into the pitfall of many a biopic: elaborating popular myth rather than recounting the known facts and favouring spectacle over substance. As a celebration of the work of Lautrec, the movie has much to commend it: the gaudy costumes and sets, together with the smoky colour-saturated cinematography, perfectly evoke the vibrant work of the great artist. However, as a serious account of the life of Laurec, the movie leaves a great deal to be desired. José Ferrer was an all-too obvious casting choice for the part of Lautrec. Unfortunately, in a performance that can best be described as wooden, Ferrer fails to go much beyond the stereotypical image of Lautrec and gives what is largely a slightly sick caricature, exaggerating his short stature by a good twelve inches whilst failing to convey any warmth or humanity. Although immensely popular when it was first released, presumably on account of its stunning visuals, the movie now feels dated and shallow. It was nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), but won only two: for Best Art Direction (Colour) and Best Costume Design (Colour). It would be easy to dismiss the movie completely were it not for its remarkable opening sequence in the Moulin Rouge, which succeeds in catapulting the audience into the superficially glitzy world which lured and fascinated Toulose-Lautrec, like a moth drawn to the flame. (JT)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Blossoms in the Dust

Movie Review: Blossoms in the Dust

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Felix Bressart

Plot outline: A real-life story of Edna Gladney, who fought for orphans' rights in Texas (IMDb).




"There are no illegitimate children - only illegitimate parents."
(Greer Garson as Edna Gladney)

Based on the real-life story of Edna Gladney by Ralph Wheelwright, director Mervyn LeRoy and a duo of screenwriters have rendered a careful and compassionate account of one woman's selfless effort to make this world a better place in which to live. With lovely Greer Garson playing the leading role, the spirit of the story is maintained on a level generally above its frequent insipid spots. The peril of overdoing a picture of this nature requires a director's constant vigil and the application of much good taste. Unfortunately, the director has let himself go a few times. There is a shade too much of shining nobility in this movie, too often tiny fingers tug deliberately on the heartstrings. And the dramatic continuity seems less spontaneous than contrived. The career of Mrs. Gladney is drawn out over a tedious stretch of time. But it is an affecting story and one which commands great respect. According to this version, Mrs. Gladney acquired a deep sympathy for foundlings when her own "sister" committed suicide because it was revealed she was one. Then, after Mrs. Gladney's own little son was killed and her life seemed devoid of aim, she began giving home to orphan children and slowly, against cruel odds and personal grief, established the fine society which has been so important in her State. One phase of the story is concerned with the fight which Mrs. Gladney waged to have the word "illegitimate" removed from birth records in Texas, and the conclusion is a touching tribute to her self-sacrificial life. Miss Garson is a vision of loveliness, with her red hair delicately framing her expressive face, and conveys through the picture a conviction of sincerity and sensitivity. Walter Pidgeon plays her husband in the true manner of an adoring gallant, and Marsha Hunt does well in the brief role of the "sister". A large cast of supporting actors is uniformly excellent, and there are several cunning youngsters to provoke the inevitable "ohs" and "ahs". As pure inspirational drama with a pleasant flavor of romance, Blossoms in the Dust should reach a great many hearts. (NYT)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 22 December 2008

The Gold Rush

Movie Review: The Gold Rush (silent)

Year of Release: 1925
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Georgia Hale

Plot outline: Little Tramp goes the Klondike in search of gold and finds it and more (IMDb).

He may be called "The Lone Prospector" in this movie, but the character played by Chaplin is the same wistful, resourceful Little Tramp that had been entertaining the world since 1914. The story is told with a background of the Klondike. It is as much a dramatic story as a comedy. Chaplin takes strange situations and stirs up tears and smiles. He accomplishes this with art and simplicity, and in his more boisterous moments he engineers incidents that provoke shrieks of laughter. You find yourself stirred by the story, gripped by its swing and filled with compassion for the pathetic little hero. Chaplin obtains the maximum effect out of every scene, e.g.: 1) When he stands with his back to the audience, watching the throng in a Klondike dancing hall, garbed, in his ridiculous loose trousers, his little derby, his big shoes and his cane. He is lonely, and with a bunch of the shoulders and a gesture of his left hand he tells more than many a player can do with his eyes and mouth ... he is thinking of the girl Georgia, the dancing hall queen, who is not even conscious of the presence of the little man who adores her. 2) When he entertains the girls by jabbing two forks in two rolls, performing a captivating little "dance" with the pastries. The Gold Rush was the longest and most elaborately produced of Chaplin's silent comedies. (HE, NYT)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Trouble with Harry

Movie Review: The Trouble with Harry

Year of Release: 1955
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine, Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock

Plot outline: The trouble with Harry is that he's dead, and everyone seems to have a different idea of what needs to be done with his body (IMDb).

Based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story, The Trouble with Harry - perhaps the most atypical of Hitchcock’s movies - is a quirky black comedy, in which he indulges his mischievous sense of fun, apparently in full cognisance of the fact that he may well be the only person to appreciate the end result. The movie has many of those elements that we most associate with Hitchcock’s work: murder, mystery, suspense and romance (!) - but seen from an unsettling oblique angle which makes the familiar appear very unfamiliar. Here the central mystery isn’t so much who the killer might be, but rather why the characters behave so strangely when they come across a dead body. It’s the kind of subtle dark humour we find en passant in many of Hitchcock’s movies, and which seems to be so characteristic of the great man himself, if his hilariously macabre intros to his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents are anything to go by. One thing that sets the movie apart from most of Hitchcock’s other Hollywood movies is the lack of a strong central lead character played by a star actor. Instead, the movie has a small, but beautifully formed ensemble cast, which includes Shirley MacLaine in her first big screen role, playing the kind of character which audiences most associate her with. Veteran actor Edmund Gwenn clearly relishes his role as the likeable sea captain, appearing in his fourth and last Hitchcock movie. John Forsythe and Mildred Natwick complete the fruitcake ensemble with subtly unnerving performances of the kind that would get a sane person certified. The movie’s sumptuous cinematography also introduces a deliberately subversive element, almost parodying Hitchcock’s more serious movies. The confined scope of the narrative is oddly at variance with the panoramic New England setting, just as the ugliness of the subject (disposing of a dead body) conflicts with the stunning natural beauty of the location. The movie plays on our instinctive revulsion for death to great comic effect, but in a way that is deeply troubling. What does it say about us that we find the image of a corpse both upsetting and funny? The movie marked the beginning of Hitchcock’s association with the composer Bernard Hermann, who would give the director some of his most memorable movie scores, notably those for Vertigo and Psycho. Hermann’s score for The Trouble with Harry - Hitchcock’s personal favourite - perfectly captures the hidden menace and humour inherent in the movie, and contributes greatly to its off the wall mood. Whether it was because American audiences failed to appreciate the movie's British style of humour or because the movie lacked a big name actor, the movie was not a success when it was first released in the United States. By contrast, it fared remarkably well in Europe, particularly in France, where it enjoyed an unbroken run of eighteen months. Whilst it may not be held in the same esteem as some of Hitchcock’s other work, it remains one of his most popular movies, and is certainly one of the most enjoyable examples of black comedy in American cinema. (JT)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Friday, 19 December 2008

Strangers on a Train

Movie Review: Strangers on a Train

Year of Release: 1951
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker

Plot: A psychotic socialite confronts a pro tennis star with a theory on how two complete strangers can get away with murder ... a theory that he plans to implement (IMDb).

Based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, an immensely successful writer of psychological thrillers, perhaps best known for "The Talented Mr. Ripley", the original narrative explored two psychological themes which came to have a huge influence on Hitchcock’s later movies: duality and transference. Duality is the idea that everything in nature has its mirror opposite lying beside it, illustrated by the juxtaposition of good and evil in the human psyche. Transference is the notion that one human being can acquire some elements of the persona of another, or live out the experiences of another, through personal contact. Strangers on a Train is the first of the truly great suspense thrillers from Hitchcock, the first movie in which all of the elements of what we now know as the classic American Hitchcock movie fit perfectly into place, with the precision and artistry of an ornate Swiss clock. Many regard it as one of the director’s finest achievements and it certainly rates as one of his most entertaining movies, with some deliciously subversive comedy skilfully woven into a dark and sinister web of suspenseful intrigue. Strangers on a Train is movie which clearly inspired Hitchcock and got his creative juices flowing at full throttle. This is at once apparent in the movie’s thrilling set-piece sequences: the murder of Miriam, seen through one lens of a pair of spectacles; the intercutting of the tennis match with Bruno’s desperate attempt to recover Guy’s lighter from a street drain; and the spectacular dual-to-the-death on the fairground merry-go-round. The staging of these sequences and the imaginative way in which they are shot suggest a level of technical and artistic brilliance that is virtually unsurpassed in a mainstream thriller. The other great thing about this movie is the calibre of the performances. Particularly memorable is Robert Walker who is magnificent as the utterly charming yet clearly unhinged psychopath Bruno Anthony. Walker dominates the movie and makes a sympathetic villain who is far more engaging than Farley Granger’s bland and inconsequential Guy Haines. Walker’s fautless, multi-layered performance in this movie shows what an immense talent Hollywood lost through his premature death. (JT)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Of Mice and Men

Movie Review: Of Mice and Men

Year of Release: 1939
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney Jr.

Plot outline: A mentally retarded giant and his level headed guardian find work at a sadistic cowboy's ranch in depression era America (IMDb).

Based on the novel of the same title by John Steinbeck, the movie follows the book as literally as the screen demands. There is a short prologue; the camera enlarges the play's vista to include the fields where the barley-buckers worked, the messroom, the town cafe where the hands might spend their wages; but nothing has been added that does not belong, nothing has been removed that was important to the proper telling of the story. The story has a cruel, bizarre, ridiculous sound. But it doesn't seem that way on the screen. Tragedy dignifies people, even such little people as Lennie (Chaney), George (Meredith) and Mae (Field). The writer and adapters have seen the end all too clearly, the end of George's dream and Lennie's life. With sound dramatic instinct they have not sought to hasten the inevitable, or stave it off. Doom takes its course and bides its moment; there is hysteria in waiting for the crisis to come. And during the waiting there is the rewarding opportunity to meet some of Steinbeck's interesting people, to listen to them talk, to be amused or moved by the things they say and do. Of Mice and Men retains its raw dramatic power. (NYT)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 15 December 2008

Captains Courageous

Movie Review: Captains Courageous

Year of Release: 1937
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas

Plot outline: Harvey Cheyne is a spoiled brat used to having his own way. When a prank goes wrong onboard an ocean liner Harvey ends up overboard and nearly drowns (IMDb).

In this adventure saga based on the novel of the same title by Rudyard Kipling, a boy learns life-changing lessons about the importance of friendship and the dignity of labor. Young Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is the working definition of a spoiled brat; the only child of a wealthy widowed businessman, Harvey has everything he needs, but never stops asking for more, convinced he can get anything if he yells, pouts, or throws the right tantrum. Spencer Tracy earned an Academy Award for his heart-warming performance as Manuel, a Portuguese old salt, who drags him on board a Gloucester fishing boat where he is a deck hand and doryman. Over the next few weeks, Harvey grows from a self-centered pantywaist into a young man who appreciates the value of a hard day's work, and in Manuel he finds the strength, guidance, and good sense that he never got from his father. The good direction, clear script, and stellar performance from the whole cast bring vividly to life every page of Kipling's novel. This classic, coming-of-age children's movie acquired four Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Screenplay, with Spencer Tracy taking home his very first Best Actor.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 14 December 2008

City Lights

Movie Review: City Lights (silent)

Year of Release: 1931
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers

Plot outline: Little Tramp struggles to help a blind flower girl he has fallen in love with (IMDb).

Charlie Chaplin was deep into production of his silent City Lights when Hollywood was overwhelmed by the talkie revolution. After months of anguished contemplation, Chaplin decided to finish the movie as it began - in silence, save for a musical score and an occasional sound effect. At the gala Hollywood premiere, Chaplin's special guests were Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa. Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that he knew the movie would be a success after watching Einstein's reactions. Cast as the Little Tramp, Chaplin makes the acquaintance of a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), who through a series of coincidences has gotten the impression that the shabby tramp is a millionaire. A second storyline begins when the tramp rescues a genuine millionaire (Harry Myers) from committing suicide. When drunk, the millionaire expansively treats the tramp as a friend and equal; when sober, he doesn't even recognize him. The two plots come together when the tramp attempts to raise enough money for the blind girl to have an eye operation. Highlights include an extended boxing sequence pitting scrawny Chaplin against muscle-bound Hank Mann, and the poignant final scene in which the now-sighted flower girl sees her impoverished benefactor for the first time. The ending is widely acclaimed as one of cinema's most touching moments. (HE)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Friday, 12 December 2008

Anna Karenina

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

Year of Release: 1935
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Clarence Brown
Cast: Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Freddie Bartholomew, Maureen O'Sullivan

Plot outline: The married Anna Karenina falls in love with Count Vronsky despite her husband's refusal to grant a divorce, and both must contend with the social repercussions (IMDb).

Greta Garbo radiates passion, exuberance and pathos as the tragic Leo Tolstoy heroine in this, possibly the finest screen adaptation of Anna Karenina. Garbo cited this as her favourite of the seven movies she made with director Clarence Brown, and the part won her the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress Award in 1936. A lavish David O. Selznick production, this version of Anna Karenina captures the essence of Tolstoy’s great novel, focusing on the heroine's experience of a love that consumes her and then drives her to destruction. The moody photography heightens the sense of impending tragedy as Anna Karenina’s ill-fated love carries her to an inescapable doom. The movie’s climax is devastatingly poignant - so cruel that it is almost unbearable to watch, a striking visual symbol of the destructive power of love. (JT)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Rope

Movie Review: Rope

Year of Release: 1948
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger

Plot outline: Two young men strangle their "inferior" classmate, hide his body in their apartment, and invite his friends and family to a dinner party as a means to challenge the "perfection" of their crime (IMDb).

Based on the play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton, Rope was conceived by Hitchcock as primarily a technical challenge. The intention was to shoot the movie in such a way that it appeared to be one continuous take, something that had never been attempted before (and has rarely been tried since). Shooting the movie in one take was a practical impossibility at the time, since the maximum length of an unbroken take was limited to how much film could be loaded in the camera, which was around ten minutes’ worth of footage. To get round this, the movie was shot in ten segments (of between five and ten minutes in duration), with each shot beginning and ending on a close up of either the jacket of one of the characters or the lid of the trunk containing the corpse, creating the illusion of one continuous take. This technical feat proved to be a logistic nightmare for all concerned on the production, cast and crew alike. The movements of all of the actors had to be meticulously worked out beforehand on a model and then rehearsed on the set many times before each take. The walls of the set and the furniture were mounted on castors so that they could be shifted during the recording to allow the huge cameras to move around the set on a specially constructed dolly. The actors not only had to hit their marks precisely and avoid fluffing lines, e.g. give the equivalent of a faultless theatrical performance, but had the additional problem of avoiding tripping over the mass of cables that festooned the set. And there were other challenges. This was Hitchcock’s first colour movie, made when Technicolor was still pretty much an experimental medium. The biggest problem this posed was getting the lighting right for the view of the New York skyline seen through the window of the apartment. In the course of the movie, the lighting had to change gradually to reflect the transition from afternoon to early evening and then night. Hitchcock was dissatisfied with the appearance of the sunset in the first shoot and so re-shot the last five segments of the movie.

Not only was the movie treading new ground technologically, it would also break the mould in other ways, with its unveiled allusions to homosexuality - an area which Hollywood had hitherto religiously avoided. Because of it, Rope was commercially unsuccessful (it was banned in some regions of the United States), and it is interesting that it fared much better in Europe than in America. Whilst Rope is without doubt a great technical achievement and is fascinating to watch, as a piece of drama is has one or two flaws that prevent it from being ranked alongside Hitchcock’s greater works. One notable deficiency is the miscasting of James Stewart, who fails to be convincing as an inspirational intellectual who might motivate two youngsters to kill someone; from his doddering performance, it seems far more probable that he would infect them with terminal narcolepsy or an urge to take up crochet. Part of the problem is that Stewart’s character is poorly developed. In the original play by Hamilton, it was implied that the character had a homosexual relationship with the two boys when they were under his care, which would explain the influence he had over them. In the movie, the character motivation is pretty well lacking and Stewart looks like a spare rib. Whilst James Stewart’s performance disappoints, the same cannot be said for his co-stars. Both Farley Granger and John Dall are excellent, portraying a pair of odious amoral characters in a way that retains the audience’s sympathy, allowing the suspense to function in the best Hitchcockian tradition. There are also notable contributions from the supporting cast - particularly Cedric Hardwicke and Constance Collier. (JT
)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 8 December 2008

Mata Hari

Movie Review: Mata Hari

Year of Release: 1931
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Fitzmaurice
Cast: Greta Garbo, Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone

Plot outline: Mata Hari is a German spy, working in Paris. She has already seduced the Russian general Shubin, and has now set her eyes on lieutenant Rosanov (IMDb).

Loosely based on the life and death of Mata Hari, this movie is the one that contributed most to the myth of the infamous dancer-turned-spy. It also added to the mystique of the actress who played her, Greta Garbo, who by this stage in her career was the most famous actress in the world. The Swedish Sphinx is a perfect casting choice for the part of the alluring temptress, combining an obvious earthy beauty with an ethereal exotic charm that makes her an unattainable object of desire (!) Though the movie may not be Garbo’s best movie, it was her most commercially successful. Although daring and ambitious when it was made, when viewed today the movie creaks with age, and it is hard not to laugh at some of its unintentionally funny clichés. In common with many early sound movies, the quality of the visuals is badly restrained by the limitations of the recording technology of the period, although there are a few sequences which rise above this and make a great impact. Whilst the movie may fall down in its production design and screenplay, this is more than compensated by the quality of the performances. Not only is Garbo on fine form, there are some equally impressive contributions from her co-stars. Lionel Barrymore and Lewis Stone. Mata Hari may not be perfect but it occupies an important place in movie history and, whilst it may not be historically accurate, it has great entertainment value. (JT)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Dial M for Murder

Movie Review: Dial M for Murder

Year of Release: 1954
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson

Plot outline: An ex-tennis pro carries out a plot to murder his wife. When things go wrong, he improvises a brilliant plan B (IMDb).

Faithfully adapted from Frederick Knott's stage play of the same title, Dial M for Murder is one of Hitchcock’s most confined works - the story virtually takes place in just one set - yet it is also one of his most compelling thrillers, and a practically flawless piece of direction. The casting is possibly the most inspired; the choice of camera shots could hardly be improved upon; and the pace is relentless. It may not be the most ambitious, glitzy or cinematic of Hitchcock’s movies, but it is certainly one of his most perfectly constructed and absorbing movies. Dial M for Murder was the movie that established Grace Kelly as a major actress in Hollywood - and many would argue that it was here that she gave her best performance in her all too short career. A favourite of Hitchcock, she would appear in two of his subsequent movies: Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Opposite Grace Kelly is another highly regarded actor, Ray Milland, whose portrayal of the movie's villain achieves that perfect union of seductive charm and calculating evil which is found only in career politicians and double glazing salesmen. Like so many other classic Hitchcock villains, it is Milland’s character that the audience identifies with and, perversely, wants to see succeed - although this is partly because his opponent, Robert Cummings's good guy, is such an unlikeably bland blob of nothingness. The movie’s other notable performance is from the charmingly avuncular John Williams, who plays just about the only sympathetic (and intelligent) police chief in any Hitchcock movies. Williams was the actor whom Hitchcock employed most often; he appeared in two other movies: The Paradine Case and To Catch a Thief, and also ten episodes of the hit TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Not only is Dial M for Murder a great movie, it's also a veritable gold mine for fans of movie trivia. (JT)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The 39 Steps

Movie Review: The 39 Steps

Year of Release: 1935
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll

Plot outline: A man tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and he stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring trying to steal top secret information (IMDb).

Based on the adventure novel of the same title by John Buchan, this exciting and highly entertaining movie is the absolute best of Hitchcock’s British movies. It was the culmination of everything that he had achieved in his preceding twenty or so movies and a template for much of what was to follow - notably Saboteur and North by Northwest: a sympathetic Mr. Average is wrongly accused of a crime, finds the whole world turned against him and has to expose the real culprit to clear his name. It’s a familiar storyline, one that provides the bare bones for countless thriller novels and movies, but somehow
no one tells it better than Hitchcock (!) Along with the subsequent The Lady Vanishes, this was the movie that earned Hitchcock his international reputation and his one-way ticket to Hollywood.

The 39 Steps is the movie that demonstrates how brilliantly Hitchcock exploits every aspect of filmmaking technique to craft a piece of cinema that scores highly on both the artistic and entertainment scales. The composition of shots, the choice of camera angles, the startling use of lighting, the precise editing - all work to build suspense, create atmosphere and tell the story as efficiently as possible. The result is a movie that rushes ahead like an express train, with plenty of humour but also a great deal of tension and darkness. Although the action slows down from time to time to allow the characters and the audience time to catch their breath, the pace is relentless, exhilarating and fun. In his most memorable role, Robert Donat makes a debonair and very likeable Richard Hannay, an obvious forerunner of the suave James Bond-style action heroes in cinema's later adventure thrillers. Donat has a natural sparkly rapport with his co-star Madeleine Carroll, which most manifests itself in the famous scene where they are handcuffed together in a hotel bedroom, one of funniest and most erotic scenes in any Hitchcock movies. Two other great actors, Peggy Ashcroft and John Laurie, bring a keen edge of realism to the movie’s most poignant scene, the one where Hannay unwittingly causes ructions in the farmer’s cottage. The 39 Steps has something of the feel of a silent movie, and not just because it employs some of the expressionistic touches of Hitchcock’s very early movies. It is a good example of pure cinema, telling the story using images rather than dialogue. Only a director who had mastered his art in the silent era – as Hitchcock had – could have such an innate appreciation of the potentialities of the moving image to tell a story and engage with an audience. Maybe this is the thing that most made Hitchcock a great filmmaker and why his movies have such an enduring, universal appeal. (JT)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Best Man

Movie Review: The Best Man

Year of Release: 1964
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cast: Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy, Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton

Plot outline: The other party is in disarray. Five men vie for the party nomination for president. No one has a majority (IMDb).

Based on the play of the same title by Gore Vidal, this movie is a hypothetical battle between two front-running candidates on the eve of the balloting at a presidential nominating convention. The drama of this confrontation, happening in the midst of a hot and howling but strangely oblivious convention, is shockingly intense. That is because Schaffner has shrewdly directed the movie to emphasize the rasp of a convention as well as of individuals. While the personal hostility between two taut and determined men is stingingly shown in the foreground, the atmosphere of all that's going on around is caught in brilliant simulation and made to crackle with the tensions of a mob. Henry Fonda gets precisely the mixture of hot ambition and cool humility to make the presidential aspirations of an evident egghead credible. And he is able to play a participant in a threatened retaliatory smear with the becoming distaste of a gentleman and yet with a certain bright-eyed zeal. In the end, of course, his behavior is that of a starry idealist. As his rigid and ruthless rival, Cliff Robertson is excellent, too - a fair reflection of a type of opportunist that has been all too evident on political scene. And as the shrewd and conniving former President, Lee Tracy comes charging through with a performance that prickles with witty cynicism and drips with phony sentiment. Kevin McCarthy as Fonda's henchman who pulls the political tricks, Ann Sothern as a brassy and brutal manipulator of the "women's vote", John Henry Faulk as a Southern politician and William R. Ebersol as a lily-white dark horse stand out in a cast that is notable for its authenticity. (NYT)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 1 December 2008

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Movie Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Year of Release: 1945
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Albert Lewin
Cast: George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury

Plot outline: A corrupt young man somehow keeps his youthful beauty, but a special painting gradually reveals his inner ugliness to all (IMDb).

Based on the 1891 novel of the same name by Oscar Wilde, the story is a thin piece of philosophic writing and a literate bit of symbolism without too much profundity. The elaborately mystical treatment which the filmmaker has given the story is matched in egregious absurdity by the visual affectations of the movie. And the whole thing makes little or no intelligible sense. Albert Lewin was attempting to suggest a diabolic enchantment by pacing it slowly and using light and shade, not to mention monotonous voice and music, to work a hypnotic spell. Nevertheless, George Sanders as Lord Henry, the cynic who corrupted Dorian's mind, gives commendable performance. He is brittle and dandified, at least, and drops the smooth and catty little bon-mots of Mr. Wilde with amusing aplomb. But Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray is incredibly stiff, and walks through the movie with a vapid and masklike expression on his face (apparently somebody figured that was the only way to show it doesn't change). Angela Lansbury as a music-hall-singing Sibyl Vane wears a ridiculous pose of purity which provokes Dorian's bestiality. Donna Reed as Basil Hallward's niece is presented in the flat role, and Lowell Gilmore plays that very pompous artist with an excess of pomposity. Throughout, an unidentified narrator gives a play-by-play description of what transpires. It sounds like Sir Cedric Hardwicke sitting sternly in an invisible cloud. (
NYT)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars