Category Archives: Classics

Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock)

In the third act of Notorious, director Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht (who had some uncredited and quite exquisite help) figure out a way to get maximal drama out of a rather mundane situation. Well, mundane as far as the possibilities of American agents in Rio de Janeiro (with the permission of the government) trying to root out Nazi moneymen after the war. And as mundane as is possible when Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant are the American agents. When they’re glamourous and star-crossed lovers. Mundane for all those conditions.

Because a big action sequence wouldn’t be out of place in Notorious. It’s a spy thriller, with a naif (Bergman) as the main spy and a debonair Grant as her handler. Claude Rains is the villain, though he’s a somewhat benign one. Even when he’s most dangerous, Rains is always pitiful. He’s a mama’s boy—singular performance from Leopoldine Konstantin as the mom—and he used to know Bergman’s dad. During the War, when they were traitors; Bergman’s dad got busted (leading to Grant finding some leverage to get her to help), Rains ran away to Rio. Grant needs Bergman to help not just because her dad gives her cred with the Nazis… but because Rains had the hots for her. It’s not illegal inappropriate—she would’ve been late twenties, he would’ve been late forties—or even exceptionally (and definitely not for a movie). Bergman did not reciprocate.

It should be the perfect assignment, particularly for Bergman because—the agency has decided—she’s already lost her virtue so why not do for Uncle Sam. Grant’s boss, an outstanding Louis Calhern, sees Bergman as an asset and can’t figure out why Grant doesn’t do the same. Though Calhern also doesn’t want to ask. Meanwhile, it’s not the perfect assignment for Bergman or Grant because the two of them managed to fall in love even though Grant’s kind of a dick and Bergman’s got a serious drinking problem. But Notorious makes it all work. The writing, the acting, Hitchcock’s glorious, glamorous close-up heavy direction, plus the photography—Ted Tetzlaff—the music—Roy Webb—and especially Theron Warth’s editing. Warth’s cutting is what makes Notorious thrilling. Warth’s cutting, Hitchcock’s directing, Bergman’s acting.

Notorious runs just over a hundred minutes and at least the entire first act and a chunk of the second is all just a close examination of Bergman as she goes through this momentous life change. She’s gone from shamed public enemy to secret agent to potential secret agent power couple. Notorious doesn’t just pull off its plot—charming espionage thriller—it’s got the whole romance thing going too. Grant wants Bergman to say no the assignment, Bergman wants Grant to tell her she can’t do it, but he’s a dick about it because it’s his job and it’s duty before love and all whereas Bergman—who the film establishes magnificently in the first few scenes, thanks to Hecht’s writing and Bergman’s awesome deliver of the dialogue—just wants Grant to acknowledge her as a person and not some stereotype. Now, while Grant’s debonair and all and definitely Cary Grant levels of attractive, he’s also a socially awkward goof. Not a lot, but just a bit. Enough he’s bad with people in general, more ladies, and Bergman specifically.

With barely a handful of Grant moments, Notorious is a spotlight on Bergman for the first forty-five or so minutes. Once Bergman gets to Rains’s house and gets to meet everyone—all his Nazi pals, mom Konstantin, of course, and then butler Alexis Minotis (who’s peculiar in just the right way, though it seems entirely coincidental—like, Minotis will glance at the camera, which the film is able to get away with thanks to Hitchcock’s establishing it elsewhere—but anyway, after the film gets to the house it pretty much doesn’t leave and Hitchcock and Hecht adjust the narrative distance to Bergman and how the film tracks her narrative.

At this point, Notorious starts to feel a little different. Then a lot different. Then when Hitchcock synthesizes the styles in the third act, it feels like it’s been longer (partially because the film skips ahead quite at least twice in the second act, which works well in maintaining tension). But there’s no rushing on the second act of the second act part of Notorious; Bergman gets a great arc. Rains gets a great arc. Grant gets to continue his arc, which has him mostly fretting in the backgrounds—often literally—as he becomes so frustrated with the situation and, eventually, himself. Bergman’s performance, particularly in the first act, is amazing. No question about it, the stuff she does it doesn’t seem like anyone else could ever do. Just spectacular, one of a kind stuff. Grant’s background stuff is a lot less superlative (it’s more like he just realized playing the whole part comedically just without any big jokes was the way to do it), but it’s one of Notorious’s many treasures.

It’s an outstanding film. Hitchcock’s direction is inventive, measured, ambitious, enthused. Outstanding script. Wonderful performances from Bergman and Grant. The film’s an obvious technical masterpiece but still has a buzz of Hollywood magic to it. Notorious is—quite obviously at this point in time—one of a kind. In the best ways.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; written by Ben Hecht; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Theron Warth; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Cary Grant (Devlin), Ingrid Bergman (Alicia Huberman), Claude Rains (Alexander Sebastian), Leopoldine Konstantin (Mme. Sebastian), Louis Calhern (Paul Prescott), Alexis Minotis (Joseph), Reinhold Schünzel (Dr. Anderson), and Ivan Triesault (Eric Mathis).


City Streets (1931, Rouben Mamoulian)

The first third of City Streets is this awesome bit of experimenting from director Mamoulian as he tries to figure out how to make a sound picture. Lots of great shots and camera setups, usually with too dawdling cuts. William Shea holds everything just a few seconds too long. But the montage imagery itself is fantastic. And Mamoulian carries it over into the narrative a bit too, though he eventually stops with it after sort of peaking.

But even for all Mamoulian’s experimenting, Streets is never experimental. There’s always the script to drag it back to reality. Oliver H.P. Garrett (adapting a Dashiell Hammett original story, with help form Max Marcin) writes some great scenes and some excellent characters… he just doesn’t write the right ones excellent. Or, if he does, at the wrong times. There’s no reason Wynne Gibson, as a jilted mobster’s dame, ought to end up giving the most dynamic female performance in Streets. It’s literally Sylvia Sidney’s movie and she loses it to Gibson for the finale. Gibson’s great, but great because the movie doesn’t give Sidney a presence much less a chance. Possibly because no one realized Gary Cooper doesn’t work without Sidney around. His performance is better, but he doesn’t function right in the plot without her.

Streets is a crime melodrama. Sidney works for her step-father, a truly singular Guy Kibbee as an abject sociopath, who in turn works for crime boss Paul Lukas. Lukas is a classy European guy who seduces the women of his gang and then kills off his romantic rivals and promotes some duplicitous underling. He’s a psychopath, but one in the guise of a sociopath. Lukas is pretty awesome. He’s not as good as Kibbee because no one’s as good as Kibbee, but Lukas is frightening. Of course, Lukas doesn’t meet Sidney through Kibbee, rather through Gary Cooper. Cooper starts the movie a dope of a cowboy who’s found his way to the big city, just waiting until the circus shows up and he can join up. He’s Sidney’s fella. And he wants nothing to do with the bootlegging gangsters.

At least until Sidney’s in a jam and, being a complete moron, Kibbee’s able to talk Cooper into it to help her. Shame the only thing Sidney’s able to hold onto is the knowledge her fella would never get involved with the bootlegging gangsters.

There’s some great romantic scenes between Cooper and Sidney, which occasionally get messed up by the edits, occasionally amplified. The first one is on the beach and is exemplar good sexy until they cut to a two-shot in the studio instead of the location. Then one where the lovers are separated by a screen. Sidney’s amazing in that one. She also gets a few great thinking scenes, one accompanied by a sound flashback (the first in film, according to the IMDb), and then one where she’s got to figure out how to save Cooper.

Because once Lukas gets a look at her, he’s not going to stop at anything to get her.

And Kibbee’s more than happy to go along. And Cooper’s a dope who thinks Lukas is his pal.

There’s a better movie in the story, but maybe not much better. Cooper’s okay. He’s actually better as the plotting gangster than the dopey cowboy stud. Sidney’s excellent, but the material’s not always with her. Kibbee, Gibson, Lukas. William Boyd’s kind of blah as Lukas’s number two. Not bad just blander than he ought to be. Some of it’s the script.

There’s a great montage sequence of Cooper and all the mob guys looking at each other. I wonder how it’d sound with Ennio Morricone.

The film’s most impressive for Mamoulian’s direction. Unfortunately, you could cut together a ten minute reel of all the best directed stuff and be fine. For whatever reason, Mamoulian drops the experimenting in the second half and the melodrama stalls. It even drags, not good for an eighty minute picture. Maybe it needs to be longer….

The film just can’t figure out how to make all its pieces work; Mamoulian tries a lot of successful things, they just don’t add up. And he seems to get tired of trying, which hurts it.

But City Streets is still an amazing piece of motion picture making.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, based on an adaptation by Max Marcin and a story by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Lee Garmes; edited by William Shea; produced by E. Lloyd Sheldon; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Nan Cooley), Gary Cooper (The Kid), Guy Kibbee (Pop Cooley), Wynne Gibson (Agnes), William ‘Stage’ Boyd (McCoy), and Paul Lukas (Big Fellow Maskal).


Champagne for Caesar (1950, Richard Whorf)

What’s so frustrating about Champagne for Caesar is how little the film really would’ve need to do to be a success. It just needed a rewrite. Someone to come in and fix Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady’s script, which is usually fine but they really can’t figure out what to do with Celeste Holm. And given Holm is second-billed (albeit below the title) and doesn’t come into the picture until moments before the halfway point… it’s like there needs to be a point to Holm.

And there really isn’t.

Up to the point Holm arrives, it really seems like the film knows what to do. Until then, the biggest problems with it are director Whorf’s bland close-up inserts—you can just imagine the actors mugging at nothing instead of the other actor in the scene—and Art Linkletter’s game show host. Linkletter’s supposed to be a jackass so he gets a lot of leeway—he really does seem like a jackass. But even he’s able to redeem himself and help move the film into position to really take off with Holm.

So the film, which starts consciously objectifying sunbathing Ellye Marshall because—as the narrator informs the audience—there won’t be any chance for it later, is actually about erudite Ronald Colman. Colman’s dedicated his life to learning all that is learnable, content to sit and read, doing the odd job to help with the bills, but it’s obvious sister Barbara Britton is supporting them. She teaches piano. It’s crappy—while Coleman doesn’t look his fifty-nine years, he’s visibly older than Britton and there’s a story in how they ended up together, with Britton acting like she’s a spinster just because she doesn’t sunbathe.

This portion of the film, with Coleman and Britton just hanging out and trying to get by while being eccentric—they invite Britton’s student, Byron Foulger, to a show and it ends up them watching a television through the store window. Historically accurate but it’s not a “show.” The scene has Foulger perplexed at how he’s ended up sharing the activity with them; it’s really strong stuff—Whorf’s direction is never better than in the first act, though there are some returns to form later on. Coleman and Britton just perfectly click.

So Coleman has this bad job interview with this weird soap company run by oddball businessman Vincent Price. What makes Price so funny is how everyone indulges his eccentricities when he’s really just a poseur. It pisses Coleman off, so much he decides to sabotage Price’s game show—the soap company sponsors a quiz show and who better to go on a quiz show than Coleman, who’s got encyclopedic knowledge and instant recall.

While at the game show, Britton gets taken with Linkletter, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a great arc or anything—quite the opposite—until they fall in love. Again, shouldn’t work, but does work. After Coleman keeps winning, Linkletter offers to use Britton’s crush to snoop on Coleman; except Britton knows Linkletter’s doing it and doesn’t care. She’s not going to betray Coleman—though she’s against his game show revenge plan—but she’s also not going to stop seeing Linkletter.

Very unexpected, very well-executed. You get to see Price just completely lose it, which you’ve been hoping he’s going to do since his first scene and the payoff’s there. The third act bungles Price in a lot of ways—somewhat through neglecting him—but he’s mostly magnificent and absurdly so.

But everything going so well makes it seem like the film’s going to know what to do when it brings in Holm, who’s a professional troublemaker. Price hires her to seduce and destroy Coleman. Holm poses as a nurse to take care of man cold suffering Coleman, working to quickly sabotage him with her feminine wiles.

Except Holm mugs through all the feminine wiles scenes—very effectively, but it doesn’t seem like the script’s written for that approach. And, although he’s obviously taken with her, Coleman’s not believably moony about her. The scenes where he’s got to be a jealous mess, Coleman plays with a shrug. His character’s willing to lose $20 million to make a point, it doesn’t seem like Holm manipulating him will get much mileage.

During this section of the film—so the middle to the third act start or thereabouts—Britton basically disappears. Coleman even comments on her absence. Presumably she’s off with Linkletter but seeing them sit around and talk about Coleman’s chances on the game show would probably be more interesting than the feigned screwball stuff with Coleman and Holm. If Whorf could keep up with the actors, it’d probably be fine. Coleman and Holm are doing different things but never bumping into each other. They’ve got a professional grace, even though the script’s clunky and the direction’s detached.

Then Coleman and Britton get back together in the third act to regroup and Caesar’s all of a sudden so much better for a moment; it’s like you’ve forgotten the ground the film’s lost through its runtime.

The ending’s not bad just flat. Tepid. Lukewarm. Blah.

There’s some excellent material in it—Price is a hoot, Britton’s quite good, Coleman and Holm are solid; Caesar never tasks Coleman and he always gives more than the scene needs. Just needs a better script and more decisive direction.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Whorf; written by Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady; director of photography, Paul Ivano; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; costume designer, Maria P. Donovan; produced by George Moskov; released by United Artists.

Starring Ronald Colman (Beauregard Bottomley), Barbara Britton (Gwenn Bottomley), Celeste Holm (Flame O’Neil), Art Linkletter (Happy Hogan), Vincent Price (Burnbridge Waters), Byron Foulger (Gerald), Vici Raaf (Waters’s secretary), and Ellye Marshall (Frosty).



Mighty Joe Young (1949, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

From the first scene, Mighty Joe Young is concerning. There’s a nice establishing shot of an Africa plantation, with some great matte work, then little White girl on the plantation Lora Lee Michel sees a couple African men passing with a basket. She wants what’s in the basket, so there’s a nice lengthy barter sequence where you try to figure out not if it’s racist, but in how many ways it’s racist. Michel’s supposed to be adorable but is annoying and bad, which is more than Mighty Joe can handle. It’s going to be bad way too frequently; annoying and bad is just too much. Michel gets the basket and the baby gorilla it carries. When dad (a completely checked out Regis Toomey) gets home, he says she can’t keep the gorilla but of course she can because she’s precocious and mom’s dead.

Toomey’s foreshadowing for the supporting performances in the rest of the movie, which is familiar faces giving—at best—checked out performances and, in the case of Nestor Paiva, annoying ones. Though maybe it’s not Paiva’s fault; he’s playing the part like you want to see him get eaten by lions but Mighty Joe Young is a cloying kids’ movie and there’s not going to be any great feline feasting. Worse, there’s going to be lots of lions thrown around for stunts.

The film skips ahead twelve years and 8,000 miles west to New York City, where promoter Robert Armstrong is gearing up for an African expedient. He’s opening a new safari-themed Hollywood night club, even though sidekick Frank McHugh thinks it’s a bad idea. You know who doesn’t think it’s a bad idea? Out of work rodeo cowboy Ben Johnson, who’s character’s last name is Johnson and you feel like it’s because Johnson would forget anything else. Johnson’s not unlikable or annoying—actually quite the feat—but he’s beyond amateurish. Director Schoedsack does nothing for his actors.

So off Armstrong and Johnson go to Africa, joined by one of the aforementioned checked-out supporting performers, Denis Green (really, it’s hard to fault any of the actors when Ruth Rose’s script has the blandest dialogue and Schoedsack’s got zero interest in directing the cast). They’re just about to come home with all the tigers Johnson and his fellow cowboys have lassoed when Mighty Joe Young comes a-knocking–previewing the film’s impressive composite shots, where stop motion Joe will interact with the live action—and Armstrong, feeling his Carl Denham coming on, decides they’re going to rope it and bring it back with them.

Only after Joe beats up a bunch of cowboys—the cowboy thing, which goes away for most of the movie after this sequence, seems the most desperate bit of quadrant hunting—does Terry Moore appear and calm the the mighty ape. Moore is playing Michel grown-up; though, in the weirdest, definitely ickiest while not for sure being intentionally gross quadrant hunting, she’s not yet legal age, which means the contract she signs with Armstrong to do a night club act isn’t legal and also it means when thirty-year old Johnson is her love interest, he was going to have to take Moore back to Oklahoma to marry her because even in 1948 it seems like California wasn’t okay with literal dudes taking child brides. Oklahoma was, of course.

Anyway.

Things go terribly wrong and there’s a long Joe wrecking Safari-themed night club scene and fighting lions. The strange thing about the action is what the film’s willing to do stop motion and what it’s not. It uses stop motion lions sparingly, instead cutting in the real ones, usually just when a thrown lion hits something, giving the aforementioned air of animal abuse. With the horses too, in the Joe vs. cowboys scene. It also seems like the kind of movie where they’d hurt animals, while the main plot is about how you shouldn’t hurt an animal. After the night club, Johnson and Moore have to get Joe out of town—the cops want to shoot him dead—so Armstrong helps them get out.

The climax isn’t even about Joe vs. the cops or Joe escaping, it’s this out-of-nowhere orphanage fire, where Johnson, Moore, and the ape have to save children. That sequence is pretty good. The lasso thing comes back and is dumb, but it’s at last suspenseful. Most of it, anyway. They push it, which isn’t a surprise.

The stop motion’s good, but underutilized. While nothing about Joe is interesting—it feels like budget King Kong, especially the model design on Joe; the movement is great, the model itself is eh—some of the other effects, particularly with the occasional person, clicks. There’s some potential to it.

About halfway through it seems like the film’s greatest tragedy is wasting Armstrong, who’s sort of spoofing himself, sort of just doing a broad comedy performance. It rarely all comes together—Rose’s script and Schoedsack’s direction work actively against it—but, again, the obvious potential is visible. Armstrong and McHugh really ought to have been a lot more fun together.

Moore’s awful. She’s not unlikable but she’s tiring. Johnson’s at least not tiring, but it might be because he’s so unmoving you forget he’s not scenery.

A distressingly bad score from Roy Webb doesn’t help either.

From go—well, okay, from the first scene with actors—Mighty Joe Young is clearly in dire straits. The special effects sequences are technically engaging but rarely dramatically. Who knows what better writing and better direction might’ve wrought. Perhaps something entertaining, but at least the great performance Armstrong can so obviously deliver, if only someone were interested in him doing so.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by Ruth Rose, based on a story by Merian C. Cooper; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Roy Webb; costume designer, Adele Balkan; produced by Cooper; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Max O’Hara), Ben Johnson (Gregg), Terry Moore (Jill Young), Frank McHugh (Windy), Denis Green (Crawford), Nestor Paiva (Brown, a drunk), Douglas Fowley (Jones, another drunk), Paul Guilfoyle (Smith, yet another drunk), Lora Lee Michel (Jill Young, as a girl), and Regis Toomey (John Young).