Thriller

Maddy’s Pick For The Weekend 5: Niagara (1953)

I have never been to Niagara Falls in Canada, but when I watch this film I am always left feeling as though I have visited. Filmed on location, the falls play a key role (and provide a spectacular backdrop to most scenes)in this superb thriller.

Niagara is directed by Henry Hathaway. Newlyweds, Ray and Polly Cutler(Casey Adams and Jean Peters)are enjoying their honeymoon at a hotel right next to those famous falls when they are caught up in murder, jealousy and betrayal.

Staying at the same hotel is troubled war veteran, George Loomis(Joseph Cotten)and his stunning young wife Rose(Marilyn Monroe). Rose is having an affair and has plotted to have her lover kill George. At first it seems as those Rose’s terrible plans have succeeded, but we soon see that George has a few surprises in store for his wife.

Marilyn was a highly gifted comic actress, but she was also very good in dramatic roles too. I find it a real shame that her dramatic acting isn’t discussed or appreciated very much today. Marilyn is still primarily known for those comic, dumb blonde characters. If you want more dramatic Monroe, check her out in these flicks – The Misfits, Clash By Night, River Of No Return and Bus Stop(this has comedy in it, but her performance is quite serious.)

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I think that Marilyn does a terrific job of portraying a memorable femme fatal. She makes Rose sexy, devious, and she also gives her own natural beauty and sexuality a somewhat sleazy quality (similar to Rita Hayworth’s performance in The Lady From Shanghai). As is always the case in a Monroe film, she steals every single scene she is in.

Jean Peters(an actress who I think should have gone on to become a much bigger star)is excellent as the young woman who befriends George, and through her pure, girl next door qualities makes him realise not all women are like Rose. I also like how Polly is independent and tries to take care of herself and offer help to George.

I find Rose and Polly to be very interesting characters depicting two different types of women, one good, kind and pure, the other shallow, deceitful, beguiling and seductive. It’s Polly’s qualities that last the longest in life and are the most meaningful, looks fade after a time, and a shallow, selfish person won’t find lasting happiness.

Joseph Cotten superbly portrays a man riddled with jealousy, personal demons and doubts. This is quite a different role to ones he usually took and he gets to show what a good dramatic actor he was.

My favourite scenes are the following. Polly and Ray taking a boat trip to the falls and going under and behind them(and Polly catches sight of Rose and her lover kissing),the falls being lit up at night, Rose singing with a group of teenagers playing records, the nail-biting finale on the runaway boat and Rose trying to escape at the bus station.

A thrilling story, with some twists, Marilyn at her best, and some beautiful location work all help to make this a must see.

Any other fans? Never seen it? I hope you check it out sometime.

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Romance

Charade (1963)

Charade is one of the most enjoyable films of the 1960’s. This film has everything. There’s two of the classic eras greatest stars at their best, thrills, romance, twists, deception, interesting and likeable characters, a cracking score and plenty of comedy.

Charade is directed by Stanley Donen, the man who brought us what is possibly the greatest musical, Singin’ In The Rain.)If you only know Donen from that film, then I think you will be in for quite a surprise with this one.

A perfect blend of romance, thrills, suspense and comedy. Charade also has some very dark moments too. Two of the murders seen in the film are pretty disturbing, despite not being overly graphic. There’s also a very suspenseful rooftop fight sequence. The film also keeps you guessing until the last few minutes as to the identity and allegiance of two key characters.

Reggie Lambert(Audrey Hepburn)is in the process of divorcing her husband Charles. Reggie is dismayed to learn he has been killed and all their money is gone. Five men soon enter her life who all want something that Charles had in his possession when he died. They all claim it is worth a lot of money and it is vital that it is found. Reggie also learns quite a few things about her husband that she had previously not known.

George Kennedy, Ned Glass and James Coburn play Scobie, Tex and Gideion, three former friends of Charles, who are all convinced Reggie has what they are after. Walter Matthau is Bartholomew, an American agent who is also after the mysterious item claiming it is vital that the US government gets it before the other three men(who only want it for the money it will bring.)

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Cary Grant is Peter Joshua, a mysterious man of many aliases who appears to be Reggie’s only friend and hope in all of this, but is he who he claims to be? Just who is telling the truth, and can Reggie trust any of them?Peter and Reggie find themselves falling in love which further complicates matters.

I wish Grant and Hepburn had made more films together after this, they make such a terrific screen team. Their romantic scenes are tender, funny and believable, they make you feel for their characters and look like they are having a great deal of fun. They also make their characters quite emotionally vulnerable at times, especially during scenes where their mutual attraction is developing.

This is one of my favourite films and is one I return to quite often. It cheers me up if I’m feeling down. The twists and turns are still effective even though I know what’s coming. There is some great location work too. Does anyone know the location of the ski resort?

My favourite scenes are the following. Peter taking a shower fully dressed, the scene on the boat between Peter and Reggie after she gets suspicious of him, the opening at the ski resort, the orange game at the club, Reggie and Bartholomew discussing her skill as a potential spy, Reggie trying to follow Peter and not get noticed and pretty much every scene featuring Cary and Audrey together.

Grant is at his most suave and funny here, and despite the age gap between him and Audrey you don’t really notice it as you do with Audrey and Gary Cooper(in Love In The Afternoon). Audrey gets a mix of comic and serious moments in this and excels at each, she really makes you feel for her character.

The rest of the cast are all superb, George Kennedy is extremely menacing, Glass is seemingly unthreatening, when his character is anything but, and Coburn is like a deadly snake waiting to strike. We get to see Matthau in a rare serious role and he has a brilliant serious expression during comic scenes.

Henry Mancini’s music is the perfect accompaniment to the action and romance on screen.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I think the park(with the market and Punch and Judy show)looks like the one featured in How To Steal A Million, has anyone noticed the similarity? Does anyone know the real location used?

Any other fans? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it.

Page To Screen, Western

Maddy’s Pick For The Weekend 4: True Grit(1969)

Hope everyone is enjoying the weekend so far. Today I want us to saddle up for adventure, action, tears, and laughter with this 1969 Western.

The film is based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis. True Grit is directed by Henry Hathaway, featuring music by Elmer Bernstein.

The film stars John Wayne as the tough, cantankerous, one eyed Marshal, Rooster Cogburn. The Marshal is hired by Mattie Ross(Kim Darby)to track down Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey)her fathers murderer.

The pair are joined by Texas Ranger, La Boeuf(Glenn Campbell) who is also after Chaney for killing a Senator. This trio are all different from each other and disagree more than they agree. As they spend time together they form a bond, with Mattie in particular finding a place in Cogburn’s heart.

At first you think the title refers to Cogburn, but as the film goes on we realise that it is Mattie who is full of grit and determination.

Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey, Strother Martin and a young Dennis Hopper, all provide solid support and make quite an impression in their respective roles. Duvall and Corey in particular steal every scene they are in. They both do a superb job of capturing the evil nature and cruelty of their characters. 

Wayne won his only Oscar for his performance here. At the awards ceremony he joked that he should have put on an eye patch sooner. It’s easy to just say he won this as compensation for never having won an award before, but I really think his performance here actually deserved it.

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Wayne makes Rooster a force to be reckoned with, tough and unrelenting. You know you don’t want to cross this man. He gives him heart, and we catch fleeting glimpses of compassion and tenderness beneath that tough exterior.

My favourite scenes are the following. Mattie in her hotel room holding her fathers watch and crying, Rooster telling Mattie about his life as they sit on top of the hill in the dark, all the comic scenes between Mattie and the horse dealer(Strother Martin, stealing every scene he is in) Mattie’s river crossing, the snake pit rescue, and the reins between the teeth shootout.

The music stays in your head, as do several scenes such as the final shootout, Mattie finding Chaney by the river, the shootout inside the hut and the snake pit scene. There is some stunning scenery to behold too.

I like the remake quite a bit, but this one will always be my favourite version. I also think this version makes the characters realistic, people look dirty, tired, edgy, and the film also shows how dark and violent this time period was. 

This film is very dark at times, but has some very tender scenes too, such as the funeral parlour scene, Mattie and Rooster’s heart to heart conversation, how Rooster gently tends to an injured Mattie, and her distress at what happens to her beloved horse.

A long held criticism of this film is that Darby is perhaps too old to be playing a teenager. I can see why some people think that, but I think that she gives Mattie so much strength, courage, and heart that you believe her in the role. I also think she conveys the reality that young people back then had no choice but to grow up quick, they became adults long before their time.

I also don’t think that Campbell is as bad in his role as some people have made out over the years. I think he’s quite funny in places too.

Any other fans of this? If you’ve never seen it, I hope you check it out sometime.

Blogathons, Romance, Tributes To Classic Stars

The Bette Davis Blogathon: Mr. Skeffington (1944)

 

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Crystal over at In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood is hosting this blogathon all about Bette Davis. I’m looking forward to reading all the other posts by those taking part. This is the first time I have ever taken part in a Blogathon, so I’m very excited to be taking part in this.

I’ve decided to write about a great favourite of mine, the 1944 romantic drama, Mr. Skeffington.

 

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Fanny. Screenshot by me.

Based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim; Mr. Skeffington focuses on the beautiful, young socialite, Fanny Trellis(Bette Davis). Fanny can twist men around her little finger, they dote on her, are entranced by her, and she both knows and loves it! From her first scene to her last, Bette makes Fanny the centre of attention as she floats around like a brightly coloured butterfly amongst all those love struck men drawn to her like bees to honey, moths to a…well, by now you should be getting the picture.

 

Bette was never better than when she was playing bad girls, and her performance here is another good example of this. What I find fascinating about this particular role though is that although Fanny is a selfish heartbreaker, I do find myself wondering if she is always consciously aware of the effect her actions will have?

Sometimes Fanny seems to be pretty naïve, there is a real girlish quality to her, yet at other times it seems she knows exactly what will happen after she says certain things, or goes out with a certain man and uses her apparent innocence as a cover/excuse for her behaviour.

This is precisely why I love Bette so much though as an actress, she can let you see the inner workings of her characters. Bette makes her characters more complex and more human than they may have appeared on paper, or possibly appeared when played by another actress.

 

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Claude as the long suffering husband. Screenshot by me.

Fanny marries the kindly Job Skeffington(Claude Rains, delivering one of his most heartbreaking performances)after her brother Trippy(Richard Waring)embezzles money from him. Fanny hopes that her new marriage will allow her access to money which he can pass to her brother. When Trippy (who hates Job)learns what she has done, he leaves home in disgust and is killed in the First World War. Grief stricken by his death, Fanny withholds any affection she once had for Job from him.

 

Fanny devotes herself to parties and spending time with a number of other men. Job and their daughter rarely see her anymore. Throughout all of this Job’s love for Fanny has never wavered, and seeing him so hurt by her only makes us hate what she is doing. Fanny will come to learn(at great personal cost)that looks are not everything, it is the person inside who counts most. Love isn’t about the physical, it is really all about two souls connecting.

My favourite scenes are the following:

1- Job and Fanny on their honeymoon boat trip, the pair are on deck and see a passionate young couple get serenaded; Fanny is utterly convinced they too will be serenaded by this band who are rumoured to always be able to pick out newlyweds and play for them onboard. The band approach, Fanny looks expectant, satisfied even and then the band members look at one another, shake their heads and walk past leaving a perplexed Fanny in their wake; she didn’t realise(but Job did)that they are not acting like a couple in love.

2- Job sitting by Fanny’s bed when they learn she is pregnant. He is overjoyed and wants to be with her, she is distressed at the thought pregnancy may affect her appearance and she also doesn’t want to have the baby at home. Job is dismissed and we can see the heartbreak it causes.

3-Fanny visiting Job at his company. When news of The First World War being declared comes through, his office is swamped with employees asking what stocks they should buy up etc. For once Fanny is of interest to no one and it throws her somewhat. Bette is very good in this scene, going from in control and flirting, to being completely overwhelmed by something out of her control. I love how she ends up standing on a chair to get out of the way of people barging in and tries to regain Job’s attention.

 

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Fanny having fun in the roaring twenties. Screenshot by me.

4- Fanny drinking in a club in the 1920’s with a man she is having an affair with. A drunk man keeps telling her that she is gorgeous. He invites more drunks over to gaze at her, who all in turn say she is the most beautiful woman they’ve ever seen. Fanny is utterly delighted at this attention and has a right laugh about it it all.

 

Bette is excellent in this film as the flirtatious, fun loving, seductive and enchanting Fanny. One moment she is all childlike innocence, vulnerability, and excitement and the next, she is despicable, cruel, vain and extremely selfish. Throughout all of this though, Bette keeps you interested in the character and even makes her sympathetic during certain scenes, she is not all bad and is more complicated than she may appear to be at first.

I always get the impression that Fanny needs attention and compliments because it makes her feel special; if she accepts her marriage with Job she will no longer feel as unique, desired as she does when she parades around with all the other men. That I can be so intrigued by Fanny is, I think, a real testament to Bette’s abilities as an actress, it is because of her performance and not the writing that makes me so fascinated. I can’t imagine another actress playing this role quite the way Bette does.

 

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Job delivers Fanny some sad news. Screenshot by me.

Without a doubt this is Bette’s film, but I’d also like to give a shout out to Claude Rains.He is superb here(endless shots of puppy dog eyes), and a sense his character harbours a quiet hope that one day something might change between him and Fanny.

 

This film could so easily have ended up belonging to either of these brilliant actors at the cost of the other, but actually neither of them ends up overshadowing the other. Bette often said that Claude was her favourite co-star and I think they were a perfect screen fit. I really like them together in this, Deception and Now Voyager. I really wish they had made many more films together.

This is a real tearjerker and that ending gets me every time I see it.

Expertly directed by Vincent Sherman. Terrific performances all round, beautiful costumes courtesy of Orry-Kelly and some gorgeous set design courtesy of Fred M. MacLean.  On top of all that, we get Bette at the height of her fame and talent, always a treat to watch. Bette, thank you so much for so many fine performances over the years, you are greatly missed.

I highly recommend this if you haven’t seen it. If you have, please share your thoughts on the film and on Bette’s performance.

 

British Cinema, Musicals, Unsung Classics

Unsung Classics 3: It’s Great To Be Young! (1956)

I wonder how many of you have even heard of this one? I’m betting not very many at all, and that is why I wanted to write about it because it deserves to be better known.

I first saw this on TV many years ago, I missed the first few minutes of it, so I didn’t even know the title of what it was I was watching. I saw that John Mills was in it, and I found myself enjoying the story, so I kept right on watching. Over the years a scene in this stayed with me (the students locking themselves in the music studio refusing to come out)and every now and then I get to thinking about the film. I just wished I knew the film title so I could buy a copy.

It took me some time after this to find a list of John Mills films and read through the plot descriptions, but I kept on going until I discovered it had been called It’s Great To Be Young! A couple of years ago, I was thrilled to see this was available on DVD and I made sure I bought a copy.

This is a film that will bring a smile to your face, and a tear to your eye. Uplifting and touching with some cracking music(courtesy of jazz great, and radio comic genius, Humphrey Lyttelton),this is perfect to watch when you need cheering up.

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Beloved music teacher, Mr.Dingle(John Mills)loves music, he loves playing music, teaching music and discussing music. His passion for his subject makes him a big hit with his students. He is easy-going and more of a friend to his pupils than just a teacher. He runs a jazz class for his students which is well received. When the school gets a new headmasterMr. Frome(Cecil Parker), Dingle finds himself being pressured to stop teaching jazz and having to just stick to the regular(boring)curriculum.

The dislike between Dingle and Frome escalates and soon Dingle’s career is on the line. It is up to his students to make a stand for the teacher they love.

John Mills is excellent as the energetic teacher who makes his lessons fun and listens to, and works with his students. Cecil Parker provides solid support as the stuffy headmaster who rigidly imposes his way of teaching on his new colleagues.

The child stars are all superb, with Dorothy Bromiley in particular making a strong impression as Paulette, who is falling in love for the first time in her life. I love the scene between her and John Mills, when Paulette asks him for advice on how to deal with her feelings.

This one makes you think of all those teachers who meant a great deal to you, and had a positive impact on your life. Who wouldn’t want a teacher like Dingle?

This may not be the greatest film out there (I doubt that was what it was aiming for), but is certainly a very enjoyable film. The outfits and hairstyles may be outdated now, but the music, and the issues that the characters are going through on screen will never age. If you need a light hearted film to bring a smile to your face this is it.

Any other fans of this? To the rest of you, this one comes highly recommended.

 

Horror

The Birds (1963)

I’d like to talk today about a Hitchcock film that I consider to be his scariest work. The film is the nature horror The Birds. The film is based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier (whose work had been adapted for the screen by Hitch before)with the story setting changed from Cornwall to a coastal American town.

When this film was released in 1963, Alfred Hitchcock had been the master of suspense for decades, but he had never before made a film that could really be classed as a horror film. Psycho released in 1960, certainly has some horror elements, but it is still essentially a suspense thriller. The Birds however is certainly an all out horror film.

From its opening titles, which feature no music, only the squawking of birds; we know we are in for a very different experience than we are used to from this director. The film makes us afraid of something we share our lives with everyday, the birds we see eating off the floor, flying through the air, and sitting on trees, buildings etc, it makes us think what would we do if they ever decided to attack us all the time. When I first saw this, I have to confess to being wary of birds for a while after viewing.

I like how the ordered lives of the characters are completely destroyed, they find themselves out of control and pursued by something they would never have thought could hurt them.

Wealthy Melanie Daniels(Tippi Hedren)meets lawyer Mitch Brenner(Rod Taylor)in a bird shop. He is trying to find some love birds to give to his younger sister Cathy(Veronica Cartwright), when he recognises Melanie as the woman who is always in the news for practical jokes and scandals. Mitch decides to have a bit of fun at her expense, and give her a large dose of her own medicine. Mitch pretends that he thinks she works in the shop and asks her to show him some birds, this leads to some very amusing scenes until he tells the truth(much to her annoyance).

There is an instant attraction between the two, and Melanie buys a pair of lovebirds, and finds Mitch’s weekend address(family home)out in Bodega Bay. Melanie drives up to leave them for Cathy, she takes a boat over to the house(to arrive unnoticed) as she is trying to leave without being noticed Mitch catches sight of her and drives over to the dock to await her return, as she comes closer to the dock she is attacked by a seagull.

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From this moment on there are more bird attacks in the town, and large groups of birds congregate in public places. Mitch, Cathy, their mother Lydia(Jessica Tandy), Melanie and schoolteacher(and former girlfriend of Mitch)Annie(Suzanne Pleshette)try and figure out what is causing these attacks, and find a way to survive.

The more I’ve watched this, I’ve picked up on something that I haven’t seen anyone else mention when discussing this. The majority of the bird attacks happen at moments of increasing intimacy between Mitch and Melanie, they increase as Mitch and Melanie’s feelings for one another grow. Hitchcock was a perfectionist and everything in his films was there for a reason.

I would find it very difficult to believe that the bird attacks coinciding with emotional moments, or during moments of sexual tension were not intentionally included. If you pick up on this I think it adds another layer to the film. I also love the way Rod and Tippi play these scenes. I really love the sexual tension and flirtatious banter between their characters.

Rod Taylor is superb as the strong, playful Mitch devoted to his family and trying to protect those he loves from these attacks; his performance in this is what made me a fan, I love him in this.

Tippi Hedren makes a strong debut as Melanie, and does a good job of portraying a strong woman becoming vulnerable and falling in love. It is a real shame she didn’t go on to become a bigger star, her performance here and in Hitchcock’s  Marnie are very good indeed.

Suzanne Pleshette steals every scene she is in, as the knowing Annie. She can see Mitch and Melanie are falling in love, even if they themselves might not be aware of it. Annie is very heroic and I feel sorry for her character for two reasons. Firstly she still has feelings for Mitch. Secondly for what happens to her later on in the film. 

Jessica Tandy is moving as the widowed mother of Mitch, desperate not to lose her son and being cold towards any woman he loves.

A very young Veronica Cartwright is good as Cathy Brenner, terrified by what she is seeing but still loving towards her lovebirds.

The ending is bleak and we are left hoping the best for these characters, but it doesn’t look likely that there will be a happy ending. The original scripted ending was even bleaker, and I do wish it had been filmed as it shows how far the attacks had spread; they drive through the town to find utter devastation, dead bodies and thousands of birds as far as the eye can see.

My favourite scenes are the following. Mitch and Melanie talking about her mother up on the hill. The banter between Mitch and Melanie when he is treating Melanie’s cut. The attack where Melanie is trapped in the phonebox. Melanie and Annie discussing Mitch and Lydia before the bid hits their door. Lydia finding the dead farmer. The birds gathering behind Melanie at the school, and the scene with the bird expert lady talking about the attacks.

I also love the scene where Melanie is driving, her body leans left and right when she turns corners, on the seat next to her, the lovebirds are leaning left and right too. That scene always makes me laugh whenever I watch this. A very brief moment of humour in a very chilling film.

One of Hitchcock’s best films, and a very good horror film in it’s own right. If you’re a fan please leave your thoughts. If you’ve never seen it, I hope you’ll check it out.

 

Romance

Roman Holiday (1953) My Favourite Audrey Hepburn Film

This romantic comedy is one which I return to again,again, and (oh, yes)again. Funny, poignant, romantic and very moving; this film is one of those rare ones that has something in it for everyone.

Princess Ann(Audrey Hepburn)is the heir to her (never named) countries throne. During a state visit to Italy, Ann stops off in Rome. One night she sneaks out of the embassy she is staying in, desperate for a few hours of freedom. She is discovered by American reporter Joe Bradley(Gregory Peck)sleeping on a street bench, he takes her back to his apartment and it begins to dawn on him just who she is. Will he use her to create the story of his career or not?

Gregory Peck is terrific as Joe Bradley, the reporter out for a story when he finds the runaway Princess Ann. At first he is only interested in her because of the story her presence would generate, but as he spends more time with her he finds himself wanting to protect her; the pair slowly realise they are falling in love, but can either of them give up the lives they at currently living(the answer to this may well surprise new viewers who think they know how it will end)Peck is at his most handsome and likeable here, and his performance is one of my favourites of his.

Not only an enjoyable film, Roman Holiday is also responsible for making Audrey Hepburn a big film star. Audrey had featured in a small number of film roles when she was cast in the lead role of Princess Ann(a role originally intended for British actress Jean Simmons).

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Audiences took Audrey to their hearts and she became an instant star. The Academy gave her the Best Actress Oscar for her enchanting performance here. I still find it hard to believe that she had done so little acting before this, as Audrey is so natural on screen and is utterly superb in a very emotional scene(that farewell hug in the car).

I think that Audrey perfectly conveys the strength, charm, innocence, vulnerability and enthusiasm of her character. This is my favourite performance from her, and it is a performance that still comes across as being fresh and believable all these years later.

William Wyler’s film does a good job of conveying how constricted and lonely the life of someone who is a royal must be. Yes they live in luxury, travel far and wide, and have great wealth; but they are also expected to devote their lives in service of others and often can’t marry who they choose, and they are under constant scrutiny. An extremely unenviable lifestyle I’d say, and it is from this life that Ann wishes to find some respite and freedom from.

Filmed in and around Rome, the film always makes me long to visit Italy, but in a way makes me feel like I have done so. I also always get a craving for ice cream after the scene of Ann and Joe meeting on the steps.

Eddie Albert provides solid support as Irving, Joe’s friend and cameraman. Irving takes many photos of Ann on her Roman Holiday, any one of which would be perfect for the front page, but will he ever let them see the light of day?

I love this film so much, it can move me and make me laugh like no other, the characters are likeable and the ending is far from predictable. I think it is the ending that helped make it so special, it wasn’t another regular fairytale, the realism throughout helps make it believable.

My favourite scenes are that farewell hug in the car(gets me every single time, and I firmly believe it always will), the mouth of truth sequence(improvised by Gregory to get a genuine reaction from Audrey), the “sorry honey, but I haven’t worn a nightgown in years” scene, and the scene where Ann reminds her staff that she is more than aware of her duty.

I want to give a shout out to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for his beautiful story. Sadly due to the fact that he was blacklisted in the 1950’s, Trumbo was never credited on the opening titles of this at the time. That omission was corrected many years later.

Another shoutout goes to Edith Head for her stunning costumes. Ann’s royal evening gown deserves particular praise.

I also like that Gregory and Audrey became lifelong friends during the making of this, they made me believe so much that they cared for one another on screen, and it’s nice to think that they became special to each other off screen. Gregory also met his future wife Veronique during the making of this, the couple remained married until his death in 2003.

As ever if you’re a fan of this film, please do share your thoughts below. If you’ve never seen this, then I hope you’ll check it out soon.

 

Page To Screen, Western

The Searchers (1956)

I consider this to be the greatest film ever directed by John Ford. That is saying something I think, as John Ford made so many fine films during his long career. He was one of the finest directors of Western films there has ever been as far as I’m concerned.

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John Wayne as Ethan. Screenshot by me.

When I watch a John Ford Western I feel as though I have actually been transported back to that time period. Ford’s Western films really bring that era to life for us, and I like how he shows us the cowboy way of life. I consider this film to be a highpoint, not only in the Western genre, but also in Ford’s film career. This film is also one of the best films to come out of Warner Brothers Studios during the 1950’s.

For those who think John Wayne can’t act, I say that they should really watch this film. Wayne delivers what is possibly his best performance here, as the complex, fearless, and fascinating Ethan Edwards.Wayne does such a superb job of conveying the inner workings of this man’s mind to us through his expressions alone.

There’s so much to enjoy in this film. The acting is terrific, the story is thrilling, moving and powerful. In short, this film has something in it for everyone to enjoy and marvel at.

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The Edward’s home ablaze. Screenshot by me.

The visuals in this film are absolutely stunning. So many scenes stand out to me in this film. That opening shot of the door, the sequences shot out in monument valley, to the burning home(surely an inspiration for George Lucas when he made Star Wars? I’m thinking specifically of the scene in Star Wars:A New Hope where Luke returns home to see his aunt and uncle, and instead finds their home ablaze),to that unforgettable close up of Wayne’s face looking in horror, pity and disgust at a group of emotionally damaged white women rescued from captivity amongst American Indians.

The film is based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May. I’ve yet to read the novel, and I am very eager to do so. Apparently the ending of the novel is much bleaker than what we get in the film. It will be interesting to compare the book to the film.

I want to take a moment to mention a couple of interpretations of mine concerning the opening title sequence, and also that famous final shot of the film. The title sequence sees the opening credits played out against a backdrop of what looks like a wall.

This wall consists of what looks like bricks or big slabs of stone. Homes and communities are of course built using such things.  I think that this was used to convey that the story we’re about to witness is one such story showing what happened during the time towns and communities were being built in the old west.

I consider the final shot to be saying that the family we see represent the future of the country. People like Ethan, and the violence and horror he causes and challenges, belong firmly in the past. That family going into the home represent civilised society, and people like Ethan will find that they have no place in such a society

Ethan Edwards(John Wayne)returns home to Texas, after fighting in the civil war. He goes to the home of his brother, Aaron(Walter Coy). We pick up instantly(without any dialogue to tell us)that Ethan and his sister in law Martha(Dorothy Jordan)are in love, and that they have been for some time.

Whilst Ethan is away one day with some neighbours, a Comanche raiding party led by Chief Scar(Henry Brandon)attacks the Edward’s home, burn it to ground, kill Aaron, Martha and their son, and kidnap their two daughters, Lucy(Pippa Scott)and Debbie(Lana Wood).

Ethan sets out to find his nieces. He is helped in his quest by half Indian Martin Pawley(Jeffrey Hunter)who was raised by Aaron and Martha as their son. Also along for the trek are the loveable Mose Harper(Hank Worden),fearless Reverend Clayton(Ward Bond)and Lucy’s boyfriend, Brad(Harry Carey Jr). Will they find the girls?

Many viewers call Ethan racist because of the attitude he displays towards the Native American Indians that he encounters. While his behaviour may seem so to us today, I do think it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

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The gravestone that may hold the key to Ethan’s hatred. Screenshot by me.

During the scene where Martha tells Debbie to hide in the family graveyard during the raid, make sure you pause the DVD just before she sits in front of the headstone. These graves she sits in front of are her grandparents(Ethan and Aaron’s parents). Under the name, date of birth and death dates etc, the headstone inscriptions state that the grandparents were killed by Comanche Indians.

It took me a few viewings to pick up on the details above, but that detail now makes me think that is actually the reason for why Ethan hates Indians so much. He doesn’t hate these people for who they are, but he does hate them for what they did. I personally think he would be just as hateful towards anyone who had done that to his family.

It also explains why he lets Martin stay with him, if he was simply a racist and hated Indian people for who they are, then I’m sure that he wouldn’t want to be around Martin at all because of his heritage. I think all of this adds another layer to this film and to Ethan’s character. I also like how we see he has clearly studied the Comanche culture very closely. Ethan knows more about them than any of the other white men and women we see in the film.

What’s so interesting about Ethan and his issues is that Ford does not spoon feed any of this information to us, it’s there if you look out for it and pay attention, but it’s not immediately obvious. We are left to make up our minds about Ethan and his attitudes. The ambiguity about his character is part of what makes this such a fascinating film to watch, and also helps make it a film that is far from a typical Western.

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Henry Brandon as Chief Scar. Screenshot by me.

I have also always thought that Ethan and Scar may have had dealings before, the way they look at one another when they meet, and how Ethan’s hatred seems to lift after his confrontation with him has always led me to believe Ethan hated him for what he had done to his family and perhaps for something else he had done. Listen to what he tells Martin about the woman’s hair they find in Scar’s tent, how could Ethan know that unless he had been present at the event he mentions?

I also really love how so much of the violence and horror in this film is suggested to us by Ford. The horror Ethan finds at his destroyed home, and the state of his families bodies don’t need to be seen by us in detail because we can imagine all too well what has been done to them. The reactions of Wayne and Hunter in this scene shows us how horrible the situation is.

When we find out what happened to Lucy, again we don’t need to see that, and the way Wayne describes what he found, and his haunted look, tell us everything we need to know. These are two very powerful examples of how suggestion can be even more disturbing and effective as showing us terrible things in graphic detail.

I also like how Ford shows us that white people also committed atrocities against the Native American Indians. This is depicted in the sequence where the army ride through and destroy an Indian settlement. Ethan and Martin arrive at the settlement later and find the inhabitants all slaughtered. That was really quite a bold thing for Ford to put in the film.

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Jeffrey Hunter as Martin. Screenshot by me.

The heart of the film lies in the desperate attempts to find Debbie(played as an adult by Natalie Wood) Martin fears for her, as he is starting to believe Ethan may kill her if he ever finds her because she will be so changed. But Ethan is unpredictable and perhaps Martin need not worry so much.

If there is a downside to this film I think it certainly lies with two things. Firstly having white actors play Indian characters. I totally understand that was accepted back in the day, but I’ve just never understood why Native American actors couldn’t have been cast at the time.

Also the lack of screen time for the female characters bothers me. This story is not only Ethan’s story. I would have liked to have seen more of Martha, Mrs. Jorgensen(Olive Carey), Debbie, and of Laurie. When these characters are on screen the actresses playing them certainly do their best, and they all make an impact delivering solid performances, but it never feels like we get to know them as much as many of the male characters in the film.

I’d also like to have seen a few more scenes of Ethan and the older Debbie reconnecting on the journey home. I also think the film ended a bit abruptly. Debbie faces emotional trauma as she gradually comes to remember what happened as a child. There will no doubt be years of reconnecting with those she hasn’t seen for a long time lying ahead for her. I think it would have been good if we had got a taste of some of that at least. It’s like the film ended a bit too quick, without really addressing the difficult stage that comes next for the characters.

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Vera Miles as Laurie. Screenshot by me.

The entire cast are superb. Vera Miles provides good support as the strong Laurie, the daughter of the west who loves Martin. Wayne delivers a fine performance as a complex and bitter man who is needed to confront violence with violence, but who has no place in the civilised world and society that remain after such acts have been finished; hence that famous final shot of the door closing on him. Natalie Wood is good as a young woman torn between two worlds and communities. I just wish we could have seen more of Natalie in the film.

My favourite scenes are the following. The river shootout. Laurie pouring water all over Martin. Ethan being asked what he had found back in the canyon, we see he is traumatised and we can guess what he found. The raid on the ranch. Ethan coming back to find the ranch ablaze. Ethan chasing Debbie.

The Searchers is a thrilling psychological Western, featuring stunning visuals, and a truly magnificent score by Max Steiner.

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That famous final shot. Screenshot by me.

This is Ford at his best. His film shows us the good things about the old west; such as the strong community bond, people willing to help strangers, people risking all to start new communities. We also see the bad side of the west; such as the violence, the death, and we also get a sense of the old and open country of the west starting to disappear, as white men move out into the land of the Native Americans.

I urge you all to see this one on Blu-ray, the picture is so clear that it looks like it was made today. Seeing this in such good quality makes me long to see this masterpiece up on the big screen as it was intended to be shown.

I’d love to know what you think of this film. Please leave your comments below.

 

 

 

 

Detective, Films I Love, Japanese Cinema

Maddy’s Pick For The Weekend 2: Stray Dog(1949)

If you thought that Akira Kurosawa’s films were all historical epics, featuring swordfights and Samurai warriors, then you really need to think again. Kurosawa also made several dramas and thrillers set in the present day of his time(40’s and 50’s Japan.)

Two of my favourites amongst these particular set of films are Ikiru and The Quiet Duel. 

 

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Murakami gets desperate. Screenshot by me.

Stray Dog is another great favourite of mine. It is a type of film that I dearly wish Kurosawa had made more of. I really do love his Samurai films, but I find these lesser known drama films have become even more special to me than the samurai films. It is to these more intimate drama films that I keep returning again and again.

 

Set in Japan during a rather oppressive heatwave, this Noir Thriller features Kurosawa’s regular lead actor Toshiro Mifune. Mifune delivers one of the best performances of his career in this film.

Mifune is excellent as the sweat soaked, keen, rookie detective Murakami. When his police gun is stolen from him he doesn’t stop trying to track it down. As time goes on, Murakami finds that his gun has moved on from the pickpocket who snatched it and into the criminal underworld.

Murakami becomes guilt ridden when the gun becomes linked to crimes. It is at this point that he has to ask for help in his search for the gun(and in a way his own redemption). Murakami is helped by veteran detective Sato(Takashi Shimura at his best here, perfectly conveying wisdom and world weariness).

This is such a good film. It is exciting, moving and very thrilling too. There is some striking photography by Asaichi Nakai, and some strong performances from pretty much everyone in the cast. Even people who feature for a small amount of screen time make a real impression.

The film is shot on location and that really adds a great deal of authenticity to the story we are watching. The film also shows us the good and bad sides of life in that country. The film also shows us a side of Japanese life which we don’t see too often on screen, that of nightclubs and dancehalls.

The film rarely lets up on its edge the seat thrills, but there are some quieter moments to be found too. A scene that always stays with me after viewing, shows the grief stricken husband of a woman killed by Murakami’s stolen gun sobbing in his wife’s garden; we see (as does Murakami)the terrible impact such a crime has on the victims loved ones.

 

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The wise Sato. Screenshot by me.

Interestingly Sato seems quite distant in that scene, which to me shows that he has seen so many similar things in his career. Due to his experience at dealing with such crimes he has in a way become used to and hardened against such things.

 

Sato tries to teach Murakami that he can’t get personally involved in every case, if he did the emotions would break him apart; but the older detective also knows he can’t teach that, it is something that has to be learnt by bitter experience. Sato and Murakami’s odd couple relationship also predates the buddy cop plots which are so common in films and series today.

The finale in the field is tense and deeply moving, as we find ourselves feeling some pity for someone who we should actually hate. If the film tells us anything, it is that crime is a destroyer and waster all round, there are only losers in such a life. The lives of both the victims and perpetrators of crime are ruined and forever altered by criminal activity of one sort or another.

Strangely enough Kurosawa himself never actually regarded this film very highly for some reason. I’d love to know why that was, as this really is one of his very best films.

A great one to watch over the weekend. If you’re not really into Japanese cinema this would serve as a great introduction I think, give it a go and share your thoughts.

If, like me, you are already a fan of this flick then please share your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

Musicals, Romance, Silent Film

Maddy’s Pick For The Weekend 1: Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

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Happy Friday, everyone! I picked this for two reasons: firstly given the endless rain we’re having here in my part of the UK, I think the title is very apt. Seecondly because this is one of the best films from Hollywood’s classic era. It is filled with endless fun, loveable characters, memorable songs, and some stunning costumes.

This is a film that is filled with energy and so much fun and joy. In this film the good and decent get their happy ending (yay!), the bad and nasty get the punishments they deserve. I don’t know how anyone couldn’t love this film. 

If you love films that take a look behind the scenes and focus on how the screen magic is achieved, then this film will be one for you to see. 

Hollywood, in the 1920’s. Handsome screen star Don Lockwood(Gene Kelly)is paired with the beautiful Lina Lamont(an Oscar robbed Jean Hagen). The pair are the film couple, and rumours are rife that they may well be in love off screen.

The rumours are not true. Don can’t stand Lina, but she encourages the rumours because she actually does have feelings for him.

When the studio heads decide to make a sound film following the success of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, Lockwood and Lamont are once again paired together. There is one snag though, Lina actually has a very unpleasant voice and there is worry about how that will be received by audiences.

Enter dancer and singer Kathy Seldon(the late Debbie Reynolds), a girl who catches the eye, and the heart of Don(much to Lina’s displeasure.) Kathy will dub Lina’s voice on screen, but when she does so she will never get credited for it. Kathy is happy to go along with this, but Don doesn’t like her being used in such a way. The stage is set for arguments, tears, heartbreak, and laughter.

This is a film to cheer you up and has a real sense of fun about it.Catchy songs, plenty of humour courtesy of Donald O’Connor, as Don’s best friend Cosmo. There is also an unforgettable appearance by the legendary dancer Cyd Charisse(she gets one of the best film entrances ever in a sexy dance with Kelly.) A young Rita Moreno can also be spotted in a small supporting role.

Jean Hagen is superb as Lina. Although she is the films villain, I actually do feel sorry for her as she represents so many Silent stars whose careers ended when sound came into the movie business.  I think it is a real shame that Jean didn’t win an award for her performance here.

The Technicolor use is gorgeous and the costumes are incredibly beautiful. This film will put a smile on your face, get you tapping your toes and singing along.

My favourite scenes are the following. The harassed director trying to get the perfect shot, but Lina’s microphone keeps cutting out. The Good Morning dance. The screening where the dialogue gets messed up and the actors voices switch. The finale. That unforgettable dance scene between Kelly and Charisse(what happened to that beautiful green outfit she has on?)

Makes you want to grab your brolly,find the nearest puddles, and start dancing around and singing.

Please leave your thoughts on this film below.