Category Archives: ★★★★

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).


The Hustler (1961, Robert Rossen)

It’s an hour into The Hustler before the film offers any real information about protagonist Paul Newman. We’ve seen Newman and mentor slash manager Myron McCormick pool hustle their way across the North American continent, getting Newman to New York City so he can play the best pool player in the world, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). And Newman does play Gleason. In this beautifully shot, acted, and especially edited twenty-five plus hour pool game between the young upstart and the assured master. McCormick pleads with Newman to remember their plan—ten grand and out—but Newman’s just too cocky.

When Gleason beats him, thirty-five minutes into a two hour and fifteen minute picture, we don’t even get to see Newman lose. He just see him lost. Past lost. We’re left to imagine how he reacted to hours of losing, while Gleason—and his bank, George C. Scott—grew bored beating Newman. McCormick sits quietly devastated while Newman drunkenly lashes out and crumbles from exhaustion.

Scene.

But actually prologue. The Hustler doesn’t really start until after Newman’s snuck out on McCormick and is working to get himself lost in the city. At the bus terminal (to dump his belongs in a locker), he meets Piper Laurie and tries to pick her up. It’s complicated and he’s got to wait until she’s quite drunk, but he manages to do it. Only for her to rebuff him at the door to her apartment; “you’re too hungry,” she tells him. So off Newman shuffles into the anonymous city, finding a room, trying to play some pool (but he’s now famous for losing to Gleason and can’t).

The initial pickup scene—with Laurie simultaneously softened and steeled to Newman’s advances and flirtations—is just as phenomenal as the pool game. It’s the first time we’ve gotten to see Newman act outside the hustler bravado. It’s the first time we’ve seen a woman in the film. It’s the first time director Rossen and editor Dede Allen have done a conversation outside the pool hall—and they use a similar but amplified editing rhythm. Now there are jump cuts, exclamation points focusing on Newman or Laurie. Rossen and Allen keep with this editing style going forward, even after Newman gets back to the pool table. After a freely roaming narrative distance in the first forty minutes, once Laurie arrives, Rossen focuses and refocuses it forcibly. Occasionally harshly. Rossen’s evolving methods to handling the narrative distance parallel Newman’s character development, which doesn’t even start when he meets Laurie the first time. We’ve got to wait another twenty or whatever minutes until McCormick tracks him down.

And then, an hour into the film, both Laurie and the audience find out we haven’t got the slightest idea about Newman as a person. Laurie stands silent, frozen, crying, as she listens to Newman berate McCormick and cast him out. The reality of their “romance,” with Newman living with Laurie and them filling their days with liquor then sex, hits her and breaks her. Did Newman hustle her? Laurie’s got a limp from a childhood case of polio and it’s 1961 so she’s seen as broken—honestly, it’s an indictment of 1961 the word “crippled” didn’t fall out of use after this film—but Newman doesn’t make her feel that way.

At least until she’s now got to wonder if he’s entirely full of shit.

But then Newman hustles in the wrong pool hall and all of a sudden he’s entirely dependent on Laurie. She’s even slowing down on the boozing, with Newman initially reluctantly but then more earnestly following suit. It’s this whole second story, with its own rhythm and feel—all about urban isolation and loneliness and desperation and connection—and when it ties into the prologue, it’s like the apple. When Newman runs into George C. Scott while out on a liquor run for he and Laurie, he finds the snake. Scott thinks he’s too cocky to ever amount to anything but is still talented enough to bank roll for certain jobs.

In one of the quieter tragic twists, once Newman’s found some humility (and humanity), Scott’s the only place he can go to get real work. And bringing in Scott, who’s more than willing to break Newman to make him fit the mold, is what sets everyone on the path to destruction.

The last third or so of The Hustler is just watching Scott crush Newman and Laurie’s tentative, desperate hold on their reality. Laurie has to endure Scott’s intentional cruelty as well as Newman’s slow corruption; it’s pretty easy to corrupt Newman it turns out, there just needs to be booze around. The foundation of Newman and Laurie’s relationship is loving not being sober. It’s loving being loose enough to get free from responsibility. What makes it all even worse is Scott’s already given Newman a character evaluation and told him how he’s going to fail and Newman can’t get off that track. The difference is he’s now got Laurie with him, bringing her along on his first job for Scott; they’re going to the Kentucky Derby to play skeazy blue blood Murray Hamilton. Hamilton likes hustling hustlers at pool and Scott thinks Newman’s got a shot.

The film says a whole bunch about masculinity, toxic masculinity, boozing, sex, romance, money. It doesn’t have much to say about pool. Gleason’s only in the bookend pool games and ends up with an exceptionally subtle, appropriately devastating arc about what it means to have talent.

Great performances from everyone; it’s Newman’s show but Laurie’s the essential. So much of the film plays out on she and Newman’s faces, every expression has to be perfect. Scott’s amazing. Gleason and McCormick are excellent. The Hustler is definitely a “uses up all the superlatives” film. Allen’s edited, Eugen Schüfftan’s photography, Kenyon Hopkins’s music—whoever came up with the titles—it’s a technical masterpiece. I mean, it’s a masterpiece overall—Sidney Carroll and Rossen’s script is singular—the film’s constantly wowing; it’s exhilarating.

And, simultaneously, an abject downer.

It’s so good.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Robert Rossen; screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis; director of photography, Eugen Schüfftan; edited by Dede Allen; music by Kenyon Hopkins; production designer, Harry Horner; costume designer, Ruth Morley; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), Myron McCormick (Charlie Burns), Murray Hamilton (Findley), and Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats).


All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

There are few secrets in All That Jazz; the film immediately forecasts where it’s going, with clear shots of star Roy Scheider in the hospital amid the other quickly cut montage sequences. But these are flash forwards, as opposed to the present action and then we’re seeing flashback. Because we’re actually not even seeing “reality” yet. First we meet Jessica Lange, mysterious, magical, dressed in white, in Scheider’s head maybe. These sequences are—except when director Fosse and editor Alan Heim cut them to be so—disconnected from the main narrative. They’re even disconnected from Scheider’s eventual hospital bed hallucinations. They’re not in his imagination, not in his consciousness… maybe it’s his soul. Doesn’t really matter. Putting a noun to it doesn’t change how it functions, giving Fosse and co-writer Robert Alan Aurthur a way to do some show not tell exposition on Scheider’s history as well as give him an egoless outlet.

The film’s present action begins with Broadway director Scheider casting for his next production. Fosse goes through the introduction to Lange, then the quick cut montage sequence of Scheider gearing up for the day (Visine, Dexedrine, cigarettes, positive affirmations), and then gets to the first big dance number. The sequence—Scheider cutting auditioning dancers, then working with the ones who make it—is breathtaking. Set to a live performance (which adds a whole other layer) of George Benson covering “On Broadway,” it’s not just about Fosse’s composition, which showcases both the individual artistry of the dancers but also the scale of the audition as well as Scheider’s place in it, and he and Heim’s editing, which captures movement peerlessly, but also introducing the main supporting cast. Well, minus Ann Reinking. But we meet ex-wife Leland Palmer and daughter Erzsebet Foldi and then the show guys—producers William LeMassena and Robert Hitt, accountant David Margulies, song writer Anthony Holland—from all their various reactions, we get some grounding for Scheider. The show guys are able to tell his not show-minded interest in one of the dancers (Deborah Geffner), which Foldi and Palmer are able to pick up on as well, though they react differently. But Scheider’s not just doing the show, he’s also cutting together a movie, The Stand-Up, about a comedian (played by Cliff Gorman), and running the editing team ragged. It’s also causing Scheider’s contact guy with the studio—Max Wright—nuts.

It’s at the screening of the day’s cuts we meet Reinking, the girlfriend, which is just before we get to see what kind of womanizer everyone’s dealing with. Since leaving the auditions and editing his movie to exhaustion, Scheider’s also had time to ring up Geffner to make a date.

There’s a lot of humanity to Scheider already. The audition sequence, when he’s cutting people, there’s great care in the film to show his hesitations and sympathies. The scene between Scheider and Geffner is where we get to see how Scheider’s empathy has got a strange formula to it. He’s heartbreakingly rude to Geffner, absolutely piggish, but also aware of how his behavior plays out. The asides with Lange have set up Scheider’s convoluted, sorted sexual history with women—Keith Gordon plays him in the flashbacks to working as a young teen in burlesque theaters, where the dancers tease (and don’t tease)—and then we get to see the repercussions of his devout philandering play out with Reinking. Geffner is, apparently, to Reinking as Reinking was to Palmer. Only Palmer’s Scheider’s creative muse—he’s only doing the show so she can headline it—and Reinking’s clearly a good dancer. Geffner is not, adding further complications and giving us a chance to see how Scheider works with his dancers.

The only person Scheider can’t manage—though with Palmer, it’s more she lets him manage her—is Foldi. There’s this amazing scene where Scheider and Foldi dance, with her trying to talk to him about settling down and him workaholicing his way through it, and even though he’s in charge of choreographing the dance, everything she says takes him a little by surprise. The relationship between Scheider and Foldi—well, Foldi and everyone (Reinking and Palmer) have an amazing relationship. In the chaos Scheider drums up so he can control his creative efforts, Foldi’s the only other one able to weather it. Because, like Scheider, she’s native to it.

Scheider’s just cracked the show when the heart troubles go from giving him pause to requiring hospitalization. It’s approximately halfway through the movie. Then there’s the medical drama parts, which race by—once Scheider’s condition improves, Fosse does a lengthy montage sequence, cutting between various moments during Scheider’s hospital stay and some external factors—Foldi’s experience of her dad being hospitalized, the show guys trying to get another director (John Lithgow). Fosse will drop longer scenes in the montage, kind of taking a break before going back to spinning around, seeing all the various moments. It’s all fairly light. Lighter than anything else has been in the film to this point.

So when Scheider’s inability to control his urges hits again and he takes a turn for the worse, it’s time for the hallucination musical numbers. There are four of them, a showcase for Reinking, Palmer, Foldi, and then women in general. They’re all amazing. But whether or not they’re enough to keep Lange’s symbolic lips of Scheider’s….

The choreography of all the sequences is startling. None of them aren’t great. But then there’s how Fosse shoots them too. How Giuseppe Rotunno lights them. How Heim cuts them. It’s extraordinary work.

Scheider’s performance is great. Then Palmer. Then Foldi. Palmer doesn’t get any expository devices with angelic Jessica Langes to establish her character. She barely gets it in the script. She’s got to do it all with looks. She does it. And Foldi’s excellent. Everyone else is good… Reinking has to play a lot with a stone face and she does it well. The show guys are all good. They’re kind of the comic relief. Even as they cover their asses.

Lithgow’s fun.

The music, the dancing, the direction, the technicals… all of it is exceptional. Heim and Fosse’s editing—which is the subject of the movie in the movie subplot, so the editing is begging attention—is singular.

All That Jazz is a peerless motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Fosse; written by Robert Alan Aurthur and Fosse; director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Alan Heim; music by Ralph Burns; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; produced by Aurthur; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle), Deborah Geffner (Victoria), Ann Reinking (Kate Jagger), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Anthony Holland (Paul Dann), Robert Hitt (Ted Christopher), David Margulies (Larry Goldie), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), Michael Tolan (Dr. Ballinger), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Keith Gordon (Young Joe), and Jessica Lange (Angelique).


Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)

The first half of Barry Lyndon, very nicely delineated on screen with a title card and then an intermission, is a black comedy. The second half is a tragedy. The epilogue explicitly reconciles the two, but there’s also Michael Hordern’s narration, which does the most expository work of anything in the picture. For the most part, Barry Lyndon’s characters are inscrutable. There are occasional exceptions, usually driven from ambiguity by rage—often directed at the titular protagonist, played by Ryan O’Neal—like first nemesis Leonard Rossiter and final nemesis Leon Vitali. Rossiter and Vitali’s souls lay bare. Most everyone else’s do not. Least of all O’Neal’s. O’Neal and his protagonist, subject of the narration but not the film, are forever a mystery. The narration often will describe O’Neal’s actions and reactions, even their motivations, but sometimes not. For example, in the first half of the film, when O’Neal deserts and assumes the identity of an officer, we never know why O’Neal doesn’t put more work into his disguise. In the second half, and far more consequentially for everyone, it’s never clear if O’Neal knocking off the drinking and carousing once he marries rich widow Marisa Berenson is sincere and, regardless, what made him knock it off.

Part one of the film follows O’Neal from poverty in Ireland to military success—albeit enlisted—in the Seven Years War on the continent, then his escape from the military into professional gambling, which leads him to Berenson. The scene where O’Neal seduces Berenson is exquisite and singular, a sublime mix of various movie magics—Kubrick’s direction, the actors silent looks exchanged over a card game, John Alcott’s glorious, gorgeous lighting, Tony Lawson’s editing, the music—the film’s main theme is a Handel piece, which Kubrick trains the audience throughout the first half to recognize for what it accompanies dramatically and then is able to use it later to amplify sequences—not to mention Ken Adam’s production design, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund’s costumes. Every frame of Barry Lyndon is resplendent in one way or another, often in many ways. Kubrick doesn’t do a lot of camera movements, instead relying on zooms to reveal and hide various actions.

Part two of the film is O’Neal and Berenson’s marriage, complicated by his mother (Marie Kean) and her son (Dominic Savage then Leon Vitali), amongst others—not to mention O’Neal’s callousness and cruelty as he assumes control of Berenson’s riches. He’d seduced her while her first husband, aged Frank Middlemass, was still alive and, once his prize is secured, he becomes quite the dick. Again, it’s impossible to know whether O’Neal was always a dick—he’d picked out Berenson as a target, during his days with mentor Patrick Magee, a fellow Irishman pretending to be a Frenchman to card sharp around Europe. O’Neal’s his committed sidekick.

O’Neal and Berenson’s eventual child, David Morley, provides a kind of touchstone for everyone to connect around, even Vitali, who’s seen through O’Neal the whole time and hates him. But it also ends up being Morley who will finally break Vitali’s fragile place in this home he loathes, with his final outburst arguably setting everyone’s lives on a path of destruction. The narrator tells the audience when it’s all too late, some fifty minutes before the end of the film, announcing when it’s time to prepare for the descent, a luxury the characters are without.

The first part of the film is full of entertaining supporting cast members, a somewhat eclectic, somewhat mundane bunch O’Neal meets as his destiny—already rerouted in youth as his father died in a duel just after securing stable employment—moves towards its inevitable conclusion. There’s cousin Gay Hamilton, who teaches O’Neal his way around a woman—it’s unclear how young thirty-two year-old O’Neal is supposed to be playing, but it’s like… seventeen or something. And O’Neal’s frequently blank look is perfect. One of the mysteries is how much O’Neal is grokking things around around him. The Hamilton stuff, at least then O’Neal’s naivety isn’t in question. Hamilton isn’t seriously going to marry her cousin so she warms up to a British officer, aforementioned first nemesis Rossiter, who O’Neal has no problem confronting and making his first duel. The film opens with O’Neal’s father’s death in the duel, so it’s always hanging around. O’Neal is actually fearless while his betters pretend to be and he wields that situation for his own class improvement. Again, does he do it consciously or instinctively… it’s intentionally unclear.

Because while O’Neal is an interesting historical figure to track through these turbulent times, he’s not a sympathetic one. He’s more sympathetic than many and he frequently deserves at least a measure of empathy, he’s never Kubrick’s tragic hero. The tragic hero of the film, its actual subject but not protagonist (because it’s not possible for her to be one) is Berenson. There are tragedies abound in the second part of Lyndon and none of them don’t serve to further devastate Berenson, who weathers them all onscreen in silence, with Kubrick and Alcott’s camera and then Lawson’s cuts all scrutinizing her. O’Neal gives a fantastic performance in Barry Lyndon, but Berenson is the performance the film hinges on. She’s got to convey all the answers without addressing them—or having them addressed in the narration—while O’Neal gets to embrace the inscrutability because, well, he’s a man. And the men of Barry Lyndon place very little value on anything.

The film doesn’t engage much with the fatalism of dueling culture but it’s ever-present. It lurks in the background, waiting for an opportunity to lunge. Similarly, while the first half of Barry Lyndon is very much a war film, it never greatly engages with it; often it’ll happen out-of-shot, but heard, a technique Kubrick utilizes to great effect throughout the first half. Reaction shots from the listener without showing this line or that line being spoken. Eventually it scales up to be the gunfire, which Kubrick actually foreshadows without sound effects earlier in the film. It’s all very intricate, very precise, very delicate.

Everything needs to work for the third act, say the last fifty or so minutes, to deliberately walk its tightrope.

Most everyone O’Neal meets along his way are distinct and excellent—Arthur O'Sullivan’s highwayman only gets a couple scenes but is memorable, Godfrey Quigley’s kindly captain is the closest thing O’Neal, the film, and the audience have to a wholesome role model. Murray Melvin is excellent as Berenson’s personal reverend. Philip Stone’s good as the suffering estate accountant.

Vitali’s got the hardest part in the film and he pulls it off. He manages to be loathsome—he always saves some of his lashings out for Berenson, spitting venom at her once he’s got everyone’s attention—and hateful but never exactly villainous. He’s a very interesting mirror for O’Neal, though neither (apparently) acknowledges it.

Barry Lyndon, especially in the first half, is a history lesson (of sorts); it examines particular times and places, particular cultural norms and mores, without engaging with the larger scale historical events passing. The second half just focuses it in more, examining the participants of the unfolding drama, watching them struggle with their historical contexts… doomed by them, actually. But with a sense of humor about it.

It’s a singular motion picture, always grandiose but never unwieldy, with a superb script from Kubrick, every technical contribution an achievement, and perfect performances. There’s nothing else like it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick, based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; director of photography, John Alcott; edited by Tony Lawson; production designer, Ken Adam; costume designers, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Marie Kean (Mrs. Barry), David Morley (Bryan Patrick Lyndon), Murray Melvin (Rev. Samuel Runt), Philip Stone (Graham), Patrick Magee (The Chevalier du Balibari), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Leonard Rossiter (Capt. John Quin), Godfrey Quigley (Capt. Grogan), Hardy Krüger (Capt. Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Diana Körner (Lischen), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), Dominic Savage (Young Bullingdon), and Arthur O’Sullivan (Capt. Feeny); narrated by Michael Hordern.