Monday, 30 March 2009

Gone With the Wind

Movie Review: Gone With the Wind

Year of Release: 1939
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland

Plot outline: The epic tale of a woman's life during one of the most tumultuous periods in America's history (IMDb).

Adapted from Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel of the same name, Gone With the Wind is perhaps the most successful movie of all time. The story, and the characters, have become a part of American cultural heritage. The story begins in Georgia, just prior to the Civil War. Beautiful and spoiled Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) schemes to win the love of the honorable Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is engaged to his saintly cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Scarlett fails in this effort, but wins the admiration of dashing scoundrel Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Ashley marries Melanie, then goes off to fight the Civil War. Scarlett moves to Atlanta to be with Melanie and wait for Ashley's return. Eventually, Union troops siege and capture Atlanta, forcing Scarlett, Melanie, and her newborn baby to flee to Scarlett's home at Tara, which has been impoverished by looting Federal troops. After much humiliation and unethical behavior, Scarlett rebuilds Tara and becomes a wealthy businesswoman. She marries Rhett and has a daughter, but her marriage is stormy. Is Gone With the Wind pro-slavery? In the pre-war scenes, the blacks seem content with their lot, and show devotion to the white "masters" who control their lives. Pork (Oscar Polk) is a shuffling, slow-talking stereotype. Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) is described by Rhett as a "simple-minded darky". But to its credit, Gone With the Wind has two very strong and positive roles. The characters listen with respect to Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), whose straightforward comments make for sage advice. McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress, an outstanding achievement during an era of segregation. Big Sam (Everett Brown) shows great courage rescuing Scarlett from grave danger. The story does sag once or twice, but only in comparison with its best parts. The movie peaks midway, during the siege of Atlanta. The best action scenes are here, and the devastation war is clearly demonstrated by the horrific hospital scenes and acres of wounded soldiers. The movie picks up again during a postwar sequence loaded with suspense. Scarlett has narrowly escaped an attack on her by lowlifes in a shantytown. A dangerous vigilante action is then taken by the men in Scarlett's life, while their wives wait anxiously for their return. Scarlett O'Hara, the central character, is shrewd, manipulating, and selfish. She is despised by most of the other female characters. Yet she is presented to the audience clearly as a heroine. Women identify with her determination, and she shows positive traits helping Melanie to deliver her baby, and saving and rebuilding Tara after the war. Rhett Butler is a self-proclaimed scoundrel, but he keeps performing heroic actions that contradict what he says, just as his love for Scarlett shows despite his frequent cruelty to her. Although he enjoys adventures apart from Scarlett, one of the movie's recurrent themes is his return to her, and his determination to have her love him more than Ashley. One wonders at first viewing why Melanie is so nice to Scarlett, who constantly schemes to steal Ashley from her. But Melanie does not view Scarlett as a threat, and perhaps she loves her more than Scarlett loves Ashley. Of course, Gone With the Wind is a costume epic and a soap opera. Because of its genre, and its strong appeal to women (the story is told through Leigh's character), there are naysayers (mostly men) who dislike the movie. But there is no doubt that it is an outstanding movie. If the costumes, the cinematography, and the script aren't enough to convince (which they certainly should be), the leading characters are extremely interesting and well defined. (BK)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 29 March 2009

It Happened One Night

Movie Review: It Happened One Night

Year of Release: 1934
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert

Plot outline: A newspaperman tracks a runaway heiress on a madcap cross-country tour (IMDb).

There are few serious moments in this movie, and if there is a welter of improbable incidents these hectic doings serve to generate plenty of laughter. The pseudo suspense is kept on the wing until a few seconds before the picture ends, but it is a foregone conclusion that the producers would never dare to have the characters acted by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert separated when the curtain falls. It Happened One Night is a good piece of fiction, which, with all its feverish stunts, is blessed with bright dialogue and a good quota of relatively restrained scenes. Although there are such flighty notions as that of having Ellie running away from a marriage ceremony when the guests - and particularly King Westley - had expected to hear her say "
I will "; or those depicting Warne volleying vituperation over the telephone at his city editor; there are also more sober sequences wherein Warne and Ellie spread cheer to the audience, notwithstanding their sorry adventures with little or no money. Gable is excellent in his role. Colbert gives an engaging and lively performance. Walter Connolly is in his element as Ellie's father. Roscoe Karns affords no little fun by his flirtatious conduct on board a bus, and Alan Hale gives a robust portrayal of an artful owner of a flivver. (NYT)

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

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Alexander the Great

Movie Review: Alexander the Great

Year of Release: 1956
Country of Origin: USA, Spain
Director: Robert Rossen
Cast: Richard Burton, Fredric March

Plot outline: Biography of Alexander the Great who conquered the then known world (IMDb).

Alexander the Great is a colossal bore. What's the problem? Well, the troubles are legion. Start with Richard Burton, engaging here in the lead role of the philosopher/warrior/conquerer, but given a series of brooding sermons to deliver for well over two hours. Burton doesn't carry the movie as he absolutely has to; the result is an experience not unlike attending a late night lecture. Then there's the warfare. Those of us spoiled on modern epics will find the playful skirmishes here on the laughable side. Sure, you can stage a battle with just a couple hundred men and no special effects if you shoot it carefully, but if your warriors look tired and on the verge of striking, you won't quite get the necessary effect. Pretty sad considering Alexander conquered Europe and Asia. Alexander's wargaming is interrupted by lessons from Aristotle (Barry Jones), again a terrible waste of screen time that adds nothing to our understanding of either man or philosophy. (FC)

My judgement: *1/2 out of 4 stars

Friday, 27 March 2009


Movie Review: Midway

Year of Release: 1976
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Jack Smight
Cast: Charlton Heston, Edward Albert, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford

Plot outline: A dramatization of the battle that turned out to be the turning point of the Pacific theatre of World War II (IMDb).

The battle - history - survives while the movie blows up harmlessly in a confusion of familiar old newsreel footage, idiotic fiction war movie clichés, and a series of wooden-faced performances by almost a dozen male stars, some of whom appear so briefly that recognizing them is like taking a World War II aircraft-identification test: Is that a single-wing Robert Mitchum? A modified Cliff Robertson? A rebuilt Glenn Ford? The movie attempts to recreate the circumstances leading up to the battle of Midway Island, June 4-5, 1942, when a perilously small US Navy task force decisively defeated Admiral Yamamoto's much larger Japanese fleet whose mission had been the invasion and occupation of Midway. Most of these things are reported quite dutifully by the movie. It solemnly cross-cuts between the war councils, chart rooms and communications offices on the American side and those on the Japanese side, with characters, who often have to be identified by subtitles, laboriously trying to give us all of the exposition necessary to make the battle coherent. There's no way to act such roles, though Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz shows a certain amount of ease reading decoded messages and shaking hands with junior officers. Charlton Heston plays a fictional character who might have been stolen from some terrible movie made shortly after World War II. He is given the movie's silliest lines, though the fact that there really was an Admiral Yamamoto doesn't exactly protect Toshiro Mifune from his share of duds. "Ah," says the movie's Yamamoto when informed of Gen. Jimmy Doolittle's token air raid on Tokyo in early 1942, "this is a blessing in disguise. There'll be no more foot-dragging by the general staff." Small-talk among flag officers is one of the movie's more minor problems. The major one is the battle, which is a badly edited and badly matched series of scenes made up of studio stuff, miniatures and actual battle footage. The director and his editors also appear to repeat battle footage when it's really good. Maybe not, but it certainly seems that way. (NYT)

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

Monday, 23 March 2009

Brief Encounter

Movie Review: Brief Encounter

Year of Release: 1945
Country of Origin: UK
Director: David Lean
Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond

Plot outline: Meeting a stranger in a railway station, a woman is tempted to cheat on her husband (IMDb).

Being no more than an expansion of one of Noel Coward's one-act plays, Brief Encounter is an intimate drama, limited in every respect to the brief and extremely poignant romance of a married woman and a married man. And virtually all of the action takes place in a railway waiting-room and in the small English town adjacent thereto, where the couple make their fleeting rendezvous. That's all there is to the story - a quite ordinary middle-class wife, contentedly married and the mother of two children, meets a similarly settled doctor one day while on a weekly shopping visit to a town near that in which she lives. The casual and innocent acquaintance, renewed on successive weeks, suddenly ripens into a deep affection by which both are shaken and shocked. For a brief spell they spin in the bewilderment of conventions and their own emotional ties. Then they part, the doctor to go away and the wife to return to her home. There are obvious flaws in the story. The desperate affection of the two develops a great deal more rapidly than the circumstances would seem to justify. And the cheerful obtuseness of the lady's husband is more accommodating than one would expect. But the whole thing has been presented in such a delicate and affecting way - and with such complete naturalness in characterization and fidelity to middle-class detail - that those slight discrepancies in logic may be easily allowed. Under David Lean's fluid direction, Celia Johnson gives a consuming performance as the emotionally shaken lady in the case. Unprettified by make-up and quite plainly and consistently dressed, she is naturally and honestly disturbing with her wistful voice and large, sad saucer-eyes. And Trevor Howard, who has none of the aspects of a cut-out movie star, makes a thoroughly credible partner. Excellent, too, as characters in a flat, middle-class milieu are Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond and Everley Gregg. (NYT)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 22 March 2009

All About Eve

Movie Review: All About Eve

Year of Release: 1950
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe

Plot outline: An ingenue insinuates herself in to the company of an established but aging stage actress and her circle of theater friends (IMDb).

All About Eve is a withering satire - witty, mature and worldly-wise. Obviously, Mankiewicz had been observing the theatre and its charming folks for years with something less than an idolater's rosy illusions and zeal. And now, with the excellent assistance of Bette Davis and a truly sterling cast, he is wading into the theatre's middle with all claws slashing and settling a lot of scores. If anything, he has been even too full of fight - too full of cutlass-edged derision of Broadway's theatrical tribe. Apparently his dormant dander and his creative zest were so aroused that he let himself go on this picture and didn't know when to stop. For two hours and eighteen minutes have been taken by him to achieve the ripping apart of an illusion which might have been comfortably done in an hour and a half. And that's the one trouble with this picture. It beats the horse after it is dead. But that said, the rest is boundless tribute to Mankiewicz and his cast for ranging a gallery of people that dazzle, horrify and fascinate. Although the title character - the self-seeking, ruthless Eve, who would make a black-widow spider look like a lady bug - is the motivating figure in the story and is played by Anne Baxter with icy calm, the focal figure and most intriguing character is the actress whom Bette Davis plays. This lady, an aging, acid creature with a cankerous ego and a stinging tongue, is the end-all of Broadway disenchantment, and Davis plays her to a fare-thee-well. Of the men, George Sanders is walking wormwood, neatly wrapped in a mahogany veneer, as a vicious and powerful drama critic who has a licentious list towards pretty girls; Gary Merrill is warm and reassuring as a director with good sense and a heart, and Hugh Marlowe is brittle and boyish as a playwright with more glibness than brains. Celeste Holm is appealingly normal and naive as the latter's wife and Thelma Ritter is screamingly funny as a wised-up maid until she is summarily lopped off. (

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Friday, 20 March 2009


Movie Review: Giant

Year of Release: 1956
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Stevens
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Carroll Baker

Plot outline: Sprawling epic covering the life of a Texas cattle rancher and his family and associates (IMDb).

In movie version of Edna Ferber's big Texas novel "Giant", George Stevens takes three hours and seventeen minutes to put his story across. Hewing pretty closely to the content of Ferber's agitating tale of contemporary Texas cattle barons and newly rich oil tycoons, Stevens and his able screenwriters have contrived a tremendously vivid picture-drama that gushes a tawdry tragedy. And he has made it visual in staggering scenes of the great Texas plains and of passion-charged human relations that hold the hardness of the land and atmosphere. In strong swipes of outdoor realism and audaciously close-to interplay of invariably violent emotions among its lively characters, Giant gives an almost documentary picture of how oil exaggerated and confused the virtually feudalistic ways of living of the old Texas landowners and cattlemen. It visions the change of social standards from rugged individuality to the massive and vulgar acceptance of running in plutocratic herds. It does not wax moralistic. It simply presents what has occurred - or what Ferber and Stevens tell us is the reason that Texas is as it is today. Perhaps because Stevens has attempted to include the full content of Ferber's story and then a good bit more, it does have a way of becoming a trifle rambling and overwrought at times. Dramatic emphasis changes from one to another theme. Despite the confusion of issues, the whole picture flows rapidly and is a series of fascinating episodes that illuminates its complexities. Thanks to Stevens' brilliant structure and handling of images, every scene and every moment is a pleasure. He makes "picture" the essence of his movie. Under his direction, an exceptionally well-chosen cast does some exciting performing. Elizabeth Taylor as the ranchman's lovely wife, from whose point of observation we actually view what goes on, makes a woman of spirit and sensitivity who acquires tolerance and grows old gracefully. And Rock Hudson is handsome, stubborn and perverse but oddly humble as her spouse. However, it is James Dean who makes the malignant role of the surly ranch hand who becomes an oil baron the most tangy and corrosive in the movie. Dean plays this curious villain with a stylized spookiness - a sly sort of off-beat languor and slur of language - that concentrates spite. This is a haunting capstone to the brief career of Dean. Others, too, are excellent - Chill Wills as an old Texas type, Jane Withers as a plump and uncouth heiress, Mercedes McCambridge as a bitter, cold old maid, Charles Watts as a hypocritical windbag and Carroll Baker as a spirited Texas deb. (NYT)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Movie Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Year of Release: 1939
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains

Plot outline: A naive man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the US Senate. His plans promptly collide with political corruption, but he doesn't back down (IMDb).

Frank Capra is a believer in democracy as well as a stout-hearted humorist. His comedy is not merely a brilliant jest, but a stirring and even inspiring testament to liberty and freedom, to simplicity and honesty and to the innate dignity of just the average man. He paced the movie beautifully and held it in perfect balance, weaving his romance lightly through the political phases of his comedy, flicking a sardonic eye over the Washington scene, racing out to the hinterland to watch public opinion being made and returning miraculously in time to tie all the story threads together into a serious and meaningful dramatic pattern. The script is a cogent and workmanlike script, with lines worthy of its cast. As Jefferson Smith, James Stewart is superb. He has too many good scenes, but I like to remember the way his voice cracked when he got up to read his bill, the way he dropped his hat when he met the senior Senator's daughter, and the way he whistled at the Senators when they turned their backs on him in the filibuster (he just wanted them to turn around so he could be sure they still had faces). Jean Arthur, as the secretary - lucky girl being secretary to both Deeds and Smith - tosses a line and bats an eye with delightful drollery. Claude Rains, as the senior Senator, Edward Arnold, as the party steam-roller, Thomas Mitchell, as a roguish correspondent, are splendid all. (NYT)

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

Monday, 16 March 2009

My Favorite Wife

Movie Review: My Favorite Wife

Year of Release: 1940
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Garson Kanin
Cast: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Gail Patrick, Randolph Scott

Plot outline: Ellen Arden arrives 7 years after being given up for dead in a shipwreck, to find her husband Nick just remarried to Bianca (IMDb).

If you've watched The Awful Truth, then you know pretty well what to expect in My Favorite Wife. Leo McCarey is, without compare, a master of the technique of the prolonged and amorous tease; and with an actress such as Irene Dunne through whom to apply it - she with her luxurious and mocking laughter, her roving eyes and come-hither glances - mere man is powerless before it. So obviously Cary Grant, a normally susceptible male, is thrown about, bewildered and helpless, like an iron filing, when he comes within the magnetic field of Dunne's allure. The script is full of lively wit and flashy back-talk. But, the direction is spotty, and there is evidence of faults in editing. The remaining cast is excellent: Gail Patrick as the second and neglected wife, who spends most of her time in negligee; Donald MacBride, as a darkly suspicious hotel manager; and Granville Bates as an acid, contemptuous and fuddle-brained judge. In fact, Bates deserves a separate mention for his masterpiece of comic creation. "Where did you go to school? " he inquires sharply of Grant. "Harvard," replies the latter. A black look, a lift of the eyebrows, then a casual "I'm a Yale man myself " leaves no doubt of Bates' sentiments. This movie owes a lot to him. (NYT)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Saturday, 14 March 2009

The Awful Truth

Movie Review: The Awful Truth

Year of Release: 1937
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, Alex D'Arcy

Plot outline: Unfounded suspicions lead a married couple to begin divorce proceedings, whereupon they start undermining each other's attempts to find new romance (IMDb).

There was no actor better at romantic comedy than Cary Grant. While he could play dramatic roles, his real talent was for comedy. His sarcastic voice and staccato delivery was perfect for one-liners. Always jealous or aggrieved, he was so natural at it that audiences had to laugh. Though the movie has a certain structural unevenness - some of the scenes having a terrific comic impact, others being a shade self-conscious - the final result is a picture liberally strewn with authentic audience laughs. Its funniest scene, that of the dog, Mr. Smith (Asta of The Thin Man) playing hide-and-seek, and repeatedly dragging out the incriminating derby hat from where Irene Dunne has hidden it, is based on the purely farcical premise that it would really have mattered to Cary Grant, her estranged husband, if he had found its harmless owner in the drawing room, when he arrived. Grant and Dunne, as the couple who get undivorced, and Ralph Bellamy as the rich respectable suitor from Oklahoma have fun with their roles. (NYT)

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

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Movie Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Year of Release: 1966
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis

Plot outline: A bitter aging couple reveal their deepest secret to a young couple during an all-night booze fest (IMDb).

Edward Albee's play of the same title has been brought to the screen without pussyfooting. Mike Nichols proved to be a brilliant director. Any transference of a good play to movie is a battle. The better the play, the harder it struggles against leaving its natural habitat, and Albee's extraordinary comedy-drama has put up a stiff fight. Nichols has gone to school to several movie masters in the skills of keeping the camera close, indecently prying; giving us a sense of his characters' very breath, bad breath, held breath; tracking a face - in the rhythm of the scene - as the actor moves, to take us to other faces; punctuating with sudden withdrawals to give us a brief, almost dispassionate respite; then plunging us in close again to one or two faces, for lots of pores and bile. Richard Burton was part of the star package with which this movie began, but - a big but - Burton is also an actor. He has become a kind of specialist in sensitive self-disgust, and he does it well. He is utterly convincing as a man with a great lake of nausea in him, on which he sails with regret and compulsive amusement. Elizabeth Taylor has shown previously, in some roles, that she could respond to the right director and could at least flagellate herself into an emotional state (as in Suddenly, Last Summer). Here, with a director who knows how to get an actor's confidence and knows what to do with it after he gets it, she does the best work of her career, sustained and urgent. Under Nichols' hand, she gets vocal variety, never relapses out of the role, and she charges it with the utmost of her powers - which is an achievement for any actress, great or little. As the younger man, George Segal gives his usual good terrier performance, lithe and snapping, with nice bafflement at the complexities of what he thought was simply a bad marriage. As his bland wife, Sandy Dennis is credibly bland. (NYT)

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

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Rebel Without a Cause

Movie Review: Rebel Without a Cause

Year of Release: 1955
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo

Plot outline: A rebellious young man with a troubled past comes to a new town, finding friends and enemies (IMDb).

Rebel Without a Cause is a violent, brutal and disturbing picture of modern teenagers. Young people neglected by their parents or given no understanding and moral support by fathers and mothers who are themselves unable to achieve balance and security in their homes are the bristling heroes and heroines of this graphic exercise. They are children of well-to-do parents, living in comfortable homes and attending a well-appointed high school. But they are nonetheless mordant in their manners and handy with switch-blade knives. They are, in the final demonstration, lonely creatures in their own strange, cultist world. James Dean is a mixed-up rebel because his father lacks decisiveness and strength. Natalie Wood is wild and sadistic, prone to run with surly juveniles because her worrisome father stopped kissing her when she was 16. And Sal Mineo is a thoroughly lost and hero-searching lad because his parents have left him completely in the care of a maid. But convincing or not in motivations, this tale of tempestuous kids and their weird ways of conducting their social relations is tense with explosive incidents. There is a horrifying duel with switchblade cutlery between Mr. Dean and another lad (Corey Allen). There is a shocking presentation of a "chicky run" in stolen automobiles (the first boy to jump from two autos racing toward the brink of a cliff is a "chicken" or coward). And there's a brutal scene in which three hoodlums, villainous schoolboys in black-leather jackets and cowboy boots, beat up the terrified Mr. Mineo in an empty swimming pool. To set against such hideous details is a wistful and truly poignant stretch where in Mr. Dean and Miss Wood as lonely exiles from their own homes try to pretend they are happy grown-ups in an old mansion. There are some excruciating flashes of accuracy and truth in this movie. (NYT)

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

Monday, 9 March 2009

East of Eden

Movie Review: East of Eden

Year of Release: 1955
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey

Plot outline: Two brothers compete for their father's approval and a woman's love (IMDb).

Only a small part of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" has been used in this movie version of it that the producer has done, and it is questionable whether that part contains the best of the book. It is the part that has to do with the conflict between the farmer, Adam Trask, and Cal, his son - the one who is obsessed with a sense of "badness" and jealousy toward his brother, whom his father loves. It also contains the later details of the career of the monstrous mother of the boys and the story of the sweetheart of Brother Aron who forsakes him for the more exciting Cal. Compressed in a script, which reduces the mother to little more than a black shrouded figure of a madam of a sporting-house in a California town, this quarter-part of the novel is boiled down to a review of the coincidental way in which the conflict between the father and son is resolved. Yet Elia Kazan has at it, in this movie that runs for two hours with such elaborate pictorial build-up and such virtuosity on his actors' part that he gets across the illusion of a drama more pregnant than it is. In one respect, it is brilliant. (NYT)

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

Sunday, 8 March 2009

From Here to Eternity

Movie Review: From Here to Eternity

Year of Release: 1953
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra

Plot outline: Soldiers stationed in Hawaii fight for love and honor on the eve of World War II (IMDb).

Based on the novel of the same name by James Jones, From Here to Eternity deals with the troubles of soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. All cast members measure up to their assignments. Burt Lancaster is a man whose capabilities are obvious and whose code is hard and strange but never questionable. He is a "thirty-year man" respected by his superiors and the G.I.'s with whom he fights and plays. His view of officers leaves him only with hatred of the caste although he could easily achieve rank, which would solve his romantic problem. But he is honest enough to eschew it and lose the only love he has known. Montgomery Clift adds another sensitive portrait to an already imposing gallery with his portrayal of Prewitt. Since he has blinded a man in the ring, no carefully planned scheme of harassment will get him in again. And, since he considers it a slight when he has been passed over as a bugler who once played taps at Arlington National Cemetery, he deems it his right to be "busted" from corporal to conform to his credo that "if a man don't go his own way, he's nothin." Although it is a deviation from the norm, Frank Sinatra is excellent in the non-singing role of Angelo Maggio, a characterization rich in comic vitality and genuine pathos. Deborah Kerr, heretofore the genteel lady in movies, contributes a completely tender stint as the passionate Karen Holmes, defeated by a callous mate and a fruitless marriage, who clings to a doomed love. While Donna Reed is not precisely the picture of a lady of the evening, her delineation of Lorene, wracked between a desire to be "proper" and her anomalous affair with Prewitt, is polished and professional. Although Philip Ober's weak captain is a comparatively slight and shallow role, the company of G.I.'s and the Schofield Barracks, where some of the movie was shot, gave the drama and the authenticity required. (NYT)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Friday, 6 March 2009

Angels with Dirty Faces

Movie Review: Angels with Dirty Faces

Year of Release: 1938
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan

Plot outline: Childhood chums on opposite sides of the law fight over the future of a street gang (IMDb).

The great success of Dead End, the 1937 movie that starred Joel McCrae, Humphrey Bogart, and the "Dead End" kids, inevitably led to a sequel. Angels with Dirty Faces reunited Bogart and six of the "Dead End" kids. Because the producing studio had been changed from United Artists to Warner Brothers, the character names were also changed. McCrae was both romantic lead and good guy in Dead End. In the sequel, James Cagney takes over as leading man, while the good guy is the priest played by Pat O'Brien. The plot tells the familiar story of childhood pals going separate ways, become rivals as adults. Rocky Sullivan (Cagney) grows up to be a career criminal and racketeer, while Jerry Connolly (O'Brien) becomes a priest. They both vie for the souls of the "Dead End" kids, who seem destined to become the next generation of Rocky Sullivans. Other story lines have Sullivan double-crossed by his lawyer/partner Frazier (Bogart), and Sullivan romancing a reluctant Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan). Cagney is excellent. He is perfectly cast as a gangster, the little tough guy with a deeply hidden heart of gold. During shootouts with the police, one can't help but root for him, all the while aware that the 1930s code requires him to come to a bad end. Bogart's character is cowardly and two-faced when compared to his aggressive character from Dead End, while the hoodlum kids have been softened and placed in more secondary roles. Angels with Dirty Faces is Cagney's movie, and he dominates every scene he is in. (BK)

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

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Stage Door

Movie Review: Stage Door

Year of Release: 1937
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Gregory La Cava
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou

Plot outline: A boarding house full of aspiring actresses and their ambitions, dreams and disappointments (IMDb).

Adapted from the play of the same name by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, Stage Door is the most successful of the genre, largely because of the quality of its cast. While Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers were already stars, the supporting cast included rising actresses Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller. They traded sharp but good-natured insults, but their tough exterior was just a front for facing their career setbacks. The only actress with an unflattering role is Gail Patrick, whose character is a snob and an second-choice mistress. Hepburn, who receives top billing, has the largest part of the ensemble cast. Her role is similar to that in Morning Glory, for which she won her first of four Best Actress Academy Awards back in 1934. She is once again a headstrong, well-educated, star-struck amateur, but this time she is rich as well. Hepburn's monotone reading of her play entrance line, "The calla lillies are in bloom again", was fodder for comics for the rest of her career. It would be a spoiler to reveal how her character becomes a good actress, but I can say that you'll either roll your eyes or cry. The ladies dominate the movie. The few men that are present are generally stereotyped. Adolphe Menjou plays a smug Broadway producer who uses his position to seduce much younger women. Jack Carson, in one of his earliest movies, plays a good-natured but rather slow-witted lumberjack. Samuel S. Hinds is a humorless wheat magnate who predictably doesn't want his daughter in show business. The most rewarding male supporting role is given to Franklin Pangborn, who is a riot as Menjou's obsequious butler. Stage Door received four Academy Award nominations, including the major categories of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Despite being surrounded by much better known actresses, it was tearjerking Andrea Leeds who landed the remaining nomination, for Best Supporting Actress. (BK)

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

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

55 Days at Peking

Movie Review: 55 Days at Peking

Year of Release: 1963
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven

Plot outline: A dramatization of the Boxer Rebellion which took place in 1900 China (IMDb).

The screenplay presumably adheres to the historical basics in its description of the violent rebellion of the Boxers against the major powers of the period - Great Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States - because of their commercial exploitation of tradition-bound and unmodern China. These market-seeking nations have in their Peking outpost gallant fighting men who, although only a few hundred in number, withstand the merciless 55-day siege. David Niven is the British embassy head who stubbornly refuses to surrender, risking the safety of all about him, including his wife and two children. Both he and Charlton Heston perform with conviction, Heston as the American Marine major who commands the defense. Ava Gardner's role is not too well conceived. Hers is the part of the widow of a Russian bigshot who killed himself upon learning of his wife's infidelity with a Chinese official. Lynne Sue Moon gives a poignant performance as an oriental 12-year-old whose American father, an army captain, is killed in battle. Flora Robson appears strikingly authentic as the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi whose sympathies lie with the outlaws. Jack Hildyard's cinematography is excellent, particularly in getting on the big screen the savage attack scenes which take up the major part of the picture. Dimitri Tiomkin provides engaging music. (V)

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

Monday, 2 March 2009

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Movie Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Year of Release: 1943
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Sam Wood
Cast: Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Córdova, Vladimir Sokoloff

Plot outline: A U.S. mercenary, Robert Jordan, and an army of peasants fight for Spanish Republic in the 1930s civil war (IMDb).

With such fidelity to the original that practically nothing was left out except all of the unmentionable language and the more intimate romantic scenes, Ernest Hemingway's wonderful novel of the Spanish civil war, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," is brought to the screen in all its richness of color and character. In spite of its almost interminable and physically exhausting length - it takes two hours and fifty minutes to cover less than four days in a group of people's lives - and in spite of some basic detruncations of the novel's two leading characters, the movie vibrates throughout with vitality and is topped off with a climax that's a whiz. The emphasis is primarily upon the conflict within the band of loyalist Spanish guerrillas to whom Robert Jordan goes for aid in his perilous mission to blow up an enemy bridge. And the study of character among those Spaniards, the definition of the braves and the cowards, is the matter of absorbing interest for at least two-thirds of the movie. The rest is the tingling action-business of the calculated blowing of the bridge, which is as tense and vivid melodrama as anyone could normally stand. In their fidelity to the novel, the script and the direction were overzealous, if anything, and lingered too long over matters which might have been profitably compressed. The script caught the flavor and the spirit of the novel handsomely, and the direction gained an intimacy with the characters through constant close-ups which is well-nigh unique. The quality of their work is flawless. However, the superb characterizations are the outstanding merit of the movie. Gary Cooper as Robert Jordan and Ingrid Bergman as Maria are fine, though limited in their opportunities. Bergman is perhaps a shade too gay. But Katina Paxinou as Pilar, the rugged Spanish woman who is the tower of strength, is a marvel of tenderness and violence, the Spanish peasant character in fluid mass. And Akim Tamiroff as Pablo is a masterpiece of dark and devious moods, as fine an expression of animal treachery and human pride as has ever been put on the screen. Likewise, Vladimir Sokoloff as Anselmo, the aged man of iron; Joseph Calleia as El Sordo, the invincible; Mikhail Rasumny as Rafael, the gypsy clown; Fortunio Bonanova as Fernando, the realist, and many more perform excellently. (NYT)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Santa Fe Trail

Movie Review: Santa Fe Trail

Year of Release: 1940
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan, Van Heflin

Plot outline: The story of Jeb Stuart, his romance with Kit Carson Holliday, friendship with George Custer and battles against John Brown in the days leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War (IMDb).

Santa Fe Trail has about everything that a high-priced horse-opera should have - hard riding, hard shooting, hard fighting, a bit of hard drinking and Errol Flynn. It touches sketchily upon the pre-Civil War struggle between slaveholders and abolitionists in Kansas Territory, thereby acquiring a note of profundity. It is very solemn about manifest destiny. The Cavalry comes whooping to the rescue not once but twice - and beautifully. Yet for any one who has the slightest regard for the spirit - not to mention the facts - of American history, it will prove exceedingly annoying. For, without the least hesitation, the producers have blithely enrolled Jeb Stuart, George Custer, Phil Sheridan, James Longstreet, George Pickett and John B. Hood in the Class of 1854 at West Point; has graduated them en masse to Kansas, like a troop of adventure-loving Rover Boys, and has there put them to guarding the perilous trail to Sante Fe. But, very soon, Jeb and the boys run afoul of John (Osawatomie) Brown, the abolitionist leader, and from then on it is Jeb and his Young Generals versus old Osawatomie and his villainous band all the way from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to the final kill at Harpers Ferry, Va. It is a noisy and bloody pursuit. Now, the judgment of history upon John Brown is divided, it is true. Some hold that he was a great martyr to the cause of freeing the slaves, others suspect he was just a wild fanatic driven mad by a high ideal. But he was hardly the crack-pot villain that the producers have broadly implied, and he deserves a better classification in the minds of impressionable movie-goers than that just one peg above a marauding cattle rustler from Bloody Gulch. Still, the story demanded a bad man for Mr. Flynn and his laddies to chase, so John Brown turns out it. Flynn plays Jeb Stuart, who was famous for his flowing red beard, with but the trace of a moustache on his lip. A shorn and fragile Jeb, one may complain; yet think what the fans would say if Flynn had to play a romantic role behind a mess of herbage! However, Raymond Massey, as John Brown, makes up in hirsute adornment what Flynn lacks - and in vigorous authority, too. Massey's Brown, though mad, is a very commanding person. In fact, he is the most convincing leader in the movie. Next to his, Van Heflin's performance as a treacherous follower contains the sharpest punch. The rest are all routine. Incidentally, we would like to know what happened to that strange railroad we saw building in just one shot. Did it ever reach Santa Fe? (NYT)

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