About Kansas City Confidential (1952)

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I watched Kansas City Confidential (1952) again last night and, yet again, I realized that a) John Payne was a damn good actor b) Neville Brand is fascinating in a rather unassuming way c) my crush on Lee Van Cleef keeps on growing and d) it’s just a fantastic movie.

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Thoughts on The Big Sleep (1946)

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I like to say I have a love-hate relationship with The Big Sleep. I don’t. I love The Big Sleep. And it grows on me every time I watch it. Maybe because I understand it a little bit better each time. But regardless of its excruciatingly convoluted plot, it is such a fun and exciting film to watch. It has so much going for it. The sexual tension, the big and bold noir shots, the performances, the Bogie-Bacall chemistry (*fans self*)… Not to mention that, as far as noirs go, the humor is second to none. I love that about it. On the surface, it looks and feels like the darkest, most action-packed noir, and yet the humor provides excellent comic relief throughout. It’s an all-around perfect piece of entertainment and it works on every level. And Howard Hawks was quite simply a magnificent director. But I think I’ve fangirled over him too much as it is.

COMEDY GOLD #4: Doris’ version of events from Adam’s Rib (1949)

d689e58487837ab1c57b8c5f1a54f857--katharine-hepburn-ribsThe real-life case of attorneys William Dwight Whitney and Dorothy Whitney and their clients Raymond Massey (yes, that Raymond Massey) and Adrienne Allen inspired powerhouse screenwriting team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon to write Adam’s Rib (1949), a comedy about the battle of the sexes, in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play two lawyers on opposite sides in a case involving a woman who shot her unfaithful husband.
Adam’s Rib is the most famous and well-regarded of the nine films starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and while they shine as the rivaling married lawyers defending their married clients, Judy Holliday is a revelation as the scorned wife. Hepburn famously asked director George Cukor to focus on Holliday during the scene where her character explains what happened in order to showcase her talents and to guarantee that she’d be cast in the film version of Born Yesterday (1950) and boy, did it work. Not only did she indeed get the role she’d originated on Broadway – winning the Best Actress Oscar in the process – but the scene is one of the funniest in the film. You can’t take your eyes off her! Her account of the events is hilarious, her timing is perfect and her deadpan expression is downright adorable. She’s an endearing, sympathetic character that you root for throughout the film and this is probably her best moment. Judy Holliday had a gift for comedy and I’ve often wondered what her career would have been like in her later years. No doubt she’d have continued to make people laugh well into old age. It’s a shame she died so young, but we’ll always have her movies.

DOUBLE BILL #13: Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and 12 Angry Men (1957)

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Courtroom dramas never disappoint. They’re tense, gripping, dramatic and emotional and, more often than not, they grab you by the throat and they don’t let go until the very end. Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and 12 Angry Men (1957) are two of the most iconic and greatest examples of this.

In Witness for the Prosecution (dir. Billy Wilder), Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a barrister recovering from a heart attack, who, despite the objections of his nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), takes on the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a man accused of murdering a widow. Robarts believes he’s innocent and will do anything to prove it.

Adapted from the play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution is obviously full of twists and surprises and is probably one of the best adaptations of a Christie story that’s ever been made. And as a massive fan myself, this Christie-Wilder combo (two of my favorite people ever!) is to die for. Despite this, however, and while I also love Marlene Dietrich’s incredible turn as Vole’s wife, it’s Charles Laughton who’s the stand-out, in my opinion. He delivers a stunning (and Oscar-nominated) performance as the brilliant, witty and ruthless barrister who will stop at nothing to prove Vole’s innocence and it’s mesmerizing to just watch him and see what he’s going to come up with next. The monocle test, particularly, is a masterpiece of a detail and a wondeful piece of characterization. One of the things I love about this film is the relationship between Robarts and Miss Plimsoll. Their scenes together often serve as the comic relief, but because it’s such a well balanced film, that doesn’t take away any of the tension from it.

12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet), I feel, is the more tense film of the two. In it, twelve jurors must decide on the fate of an 18-year-old boy accused of murdering his father. Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) is the only one who’s not convinced he’s guilty. Emotions are high as the twelve jurors debate, deliberate, argue and vote in that stuffy room in that courthouse on that hot New York City day.

I find 12 Angry Men (or rather 11 Angry Men and 1 Who’s Actually All Right) to be one of the most enthralling and fascinating films ever made. You can’t look away at any point. There’s something incredibly appealing about films shot in one location because you can do so much with it, and this is undoubtedly one of the best. It’s just wonderful to witness 12 Angry Men get more and more intense as it goes on. Those twelve people who’ve never met before are all stuck in the same room for hours on end with someone’s life in their hands. Those twelve people who are never mentioned by name, and are only referred to by their juror numbers, and whose background is provided only through professions and bits and pieces here and there – that marvellous dialogue! Lumet’s now legendary technique of lowering the camera as the film goes on only adds to the claustrophobia and the tension and, Sidney, it’s magnificent.

Both Wilfrid Robarts and Juror 8 are extraordinary central characters and they guide us through their respective films beautifully. I’ve always loved the ‘standing up for what you believe in’ motif in these types of films and both of them do just that, in their own way. Maybe we should all take notes.

All about Eve, again

 

1200x600AllAboutEve.jpgApril 5th is a massive day for Classic Hollywood birthdays, one of which being that of Bette Davis (1908). So yesterday I decided to watch All about Eve (1950) for the billionth time, hoping to write a little something about my favorite lines or something, and when I sat down to write it, I realized I couldn’t. I couldn’t come up with anything, because I couldn’t single anything out. Every single thing in this darned film is perfect. Every line (and I mean, EVERY line), every character, every monologue (Bill’s love-hate relationship with the theatre, Eve’s obsession with it, and Margo’s mid-life crisis are stand-out moments for me), not to mention the outrageously fantastic performances. Everything about it is incredible. I’ve talked about All about Eve a few times here in the Garden, including on a comparison article between it and Sunset Blvd (1950), and I’ve run out of things to say about it. It is almost offensively brilliant and I’ve loved it for far too long to objectively or even subjectively assess it. Although, if I were to do a list of my favorite lines, the heartburn exchange at the party would be very near the top. Probably even higher than ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.’ I said probably. Maybe. Who knows. Thankfully, I wouldn’t know where to begin with that.

5 things I love about Rope (1948)

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I adore Rope. I know that feels like a rather insipid statement, but it’s Hitchcock, so there’s not a whole lot left to say. I blame film students. So instead I’ll just randomly tell you why I love Rope, in what I sometimes call ‘5 things I love about…’. Other times, it’s 7, but I think this list covers it.

– The long, continuous takes give Rope a ‘play’ feel, and it’s quite genius. It is a play originally (Patrick Hamilton, 1929) and it just screams it. As a playwright myself, I have been unknowingly influenced by it for years. In fact, this is the type of thing that makes you go ‘Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.’

– John Dall and Farley Granger are deliciously despicable as the arrogant murderers turned party hosts, serving food from their victim’s ‘grave’ as they entertain their guests.

– Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson)’s solo take, when she’s clearing the table, coming in and out of the living-room, with the camera steadily focused on her is incredible because of how much tension it holds. It’s one of the most nerve-wrecking scenes in the film, in my opinion.

– Movie talk! ‘I’ll take Cary Grant myself!’ ‘Oh he was thrilling in that new thing with Bergman’ Wink, wink. The funniest moment.

– The final scene is spectacular. Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart)’s speech is delivered in his usual, passionate, Mr Smith-like way and every word burns through your soul. If this doesn’t make you hate Brandon and Phillip more than you already should, then nothing will.

Rope might not be the best Hitchcock film, but it is certainly one of the most daring and one of my personal favorites. But then again, I’ve said that about nearly all of them. Still working on my top 10. It’s not easy, I tell ya.

The elusive Raw Deal (1948) theme tune

Just where exactly does one find such a thing? I’ve looked everywhere for ages and I cannot find it. It’s such a hypnotizing theme tune, and because I’m writing a noir serial at the moment, I’ve been listening to a lot of noir theme tunes (David Raksin was a genius, by the way, Laura (1944) and The Big Combo (1955)? Is he kidding me? Hero!) but I simply cannot find the one from Raw Deal. If anybody knows where I can get it, please let me know.

‘It Might As Well Be Spring’

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Though not the best Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, State Fair (1945) is certainly one of the loveliest. Not only that, but it also has one of their greatest ever tunes, the Oscar-winning ‘It might as well be Spring’. Oh, what a wonderful number. A tad reminiscent of ‘The Boy Next Door’ from Meet me in St Louis (1944), if you will. And Jeanne Crain! She had a face made for Technicolor and she never looked more radiant than she did here.

State Fair is such a sweet little thing. I feel like it’s one of those films you put on when you want to feel all nice and cozy. And who doesn’t love Dana Andrews? That man was great in everything.

COMEDY GOLD #3: Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933)

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George Cukor’s tragi-comedy Dinner At Eight (1933) is a remarkable thing. Not least because the dinner itself never actually happens. It is all about the intertwining lives of the guests in the days leading up to it, ending right after they walk into the dining-room.

Being an ensemble movie – and being a Cukor movie – it’s all about the performances: Billie Burke and her permanent ditziness as the socialite and hostess of the titular dinner, Lionel Barrymore as her husband with a failing business and failing health, John Barrymore and his tragic descent into despair as he realizes he’s a has-been, and, of course, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery as the couple who can’t stand each other. But to me, Marie Dressler is the stand-out. And in a movie whose cast includes the Barrymore brothers and arguably the most beloved blonde bombshell of the 1930s, that’s quite a feat.

In her first scene, with Lionel Barrymore, her over-the-top entrance precedes her larger-than-life performance. Carlota Vance (Dressler) is a retired stage actress, who is now broke and looking to sell her stock. She and Oliver Jordan (Barrymore) are old friends and she confides in him that she has no money, in what can only be described as a scene-stealing moment, for no other reason than her extraordinary expressions. I mean, what a face! She had the perfect face for comedy and she knew how to use it. And on top of that, what does it for me in this film is that she slips between comedy and drama seemingly without any effort, so naturally, that it only hits you a few seconds after she’s done it. Her scene with Paula (Magde Evans) towards the end is a good example of this. It’s a tender, heartfelt moment that starts off as anything but. It’s actually probably my favorite scene in the film and it’s because of Marie Dressler.

Her crowning moment, and the film’s most iconic one, is her scene with Kitty (Jean Harlow), in which she delivers one of the best putdowns in 1930s comedy and one of the funniest closing lines ever. Marie Dressler was perfect in this and rightfully got top-billing. In the original Kaufman and Ferber play, however, Constance Collier played Carlota and when you read things like that, you can’t help but think that the two of them would have been absolutely hilarious in a film together. I almost feel cheated that we didn’t get to see that. But hey, we’ll always have this and that’s good enough for me.

DOUBLE BILL #12: The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

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James Cagney once said about acting, ‘Learn your lines, find your mark, look ‘em in the eye and tell ‘em the truth.’ And he did. That was the thing about him. You always believed him, no matter what he was doing. And it was fascinating to watch. The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), in particular, are all him and about him.

The Public Enemy (dir. William A. Wellman) follows Tom Powers (Cagney) and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), two neighbourhood gangsters from Chicago, throughout their lives of crime. The sheer brutality, honesty and rawness of it, both as a gangster film and a family drama, is almost unparalleled, and to have it boiled down to just ‘the grapefruit scene’ is infuriating, even though I understand it’s meant to be a representation of who Tom Powers is and what he can’t seem to be able to do. There are, however, many jaw-dropping moments throughout the film, such as the rain-soaked revenge scene, or the scene where Tom is raped by his friend’s girlfriend after she gets him drunk. Not to mention the ending. Oh, that ending…

What I love about this film is that Tom Powers is a failure in almost every way. He is a petty gangster, a hoodlum, and he knows it. He wants to break away from that but something always stands in the way. He’s an impulsive, violent thug with mother issues, and arguably no redeeming qualities, and the deeper he sinks, the harder he fights to get back up. But his moment in the sun never comes. Deservingly so. He came from nothing and he died with nothing, in one of cinema’s most horrible and brutal endings. The raw nature of the film makes Tom Powers a wonderful character. He’s so charmingly detestable, he’ll make you want to shove a grapefruit in his face.

Angels With Dirty Faces (dir. Michael Curtiz) is, again, a tale of crime and friendship. In it, childhood best friends Rocky Sullivan (Cagney in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) begin their adolescence as, you guessed it, neighbourhood hoodlums. However, as they grow older, their lives take different paths. Jerry is now a priest, and Rocky is an ex-convict. The famous Dead End kids make an appearance as the neighbourhood gang who idolizes Rocky Sullivan and whom Father Connolly wants to protect from a life of crime at all costs.

Upon his release from prison, Rocky goes to see Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) about the money he owes him. This encounter leads Rocky right back to his old ways, and for the rest of the film, he becomes a sort of anti-hero and a very ambiguous character that you can’t help but love and root for, right down to the powerful final moments. You never really know where you stand with Rocky. You can tell that he’s probably trying to redeem himself, but at the same time, he can’t help but do what he does best and for which he is worshipped. Because of this, Rocky and Jerry’s friendship is always at risk and is a constant element throughout the film. The love and the affection are still there, but they are on different sides of the moral compass and neither of them will back down, right up until their final moments together.

Angels with Dirty Faces is an incredibly powerful film, with so much going for it, and I like to think of it as a love story in the form of friendship, disguised as a gangster film. Also, might be interesting to point out that James Cagney and Pat O’Brien were actually best friends in real life, which I think is lovely.

What I find interesting about these two films and so many other gangster films of the era is that James Cagney gets his comeuppance in both of them. And in such a heart-wrenching way, as well. Him walking towards the camera in Angels is a wonderful moment. I could watch that on a loop all day along. Oh, and that’s another thing. He had a great face for close-ups. Not in a Greta Garbo way, but in a way that you would feel every single thing that he was feeling in that moment, because it beautifully incapsulated everything that happened in the film previously and signified the character’s beaking point, just like in the revenge scene from The Public Enemy. If there’s a James Cagney close-up, there’s going to be closure. Plot-wise and emotionally. And it’s beautiful.