Here we go again …

I will be out of town until April 30.  My brother’s family rented a house near the Sundance Resort in Utah for a family reunion . On the way there, we will stop in Moab, Utah to visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  Stops in Sin City, Nevada on the way to and fro, too!

“See” you soon.

New York New York Hotel and Casino

New York New York Hotel and Casino

Sundance Resort.  No, that's not the house we are staying in

Sundance Resort. No, that’s not the house we are staying in

Many Westerns and other movies were shot in Moab and environs.

Many Westerns and other movies were shot in Moab and environs.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet)seventh seal poster
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Written by Ingmar Bergman
1957/Sweden
Svensk Filmindustri (SF)

Repeat viewing/Criterion Collection DVD
#332 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Antonius Block: This is my hand. I can turn it. The blood is still running in it. The sun is still in the sky and the wind is blowing. And I… I, Antonius Block, play chess with Death.

I always host a little classic film festival when my brother comes to visit and this is what he chose for yesterday.  The Seventh Seal is one of my very favorite films.  Amid the haunting images of pestilence and death that stick in my mind, I always forget how funny it can be.

In 12th Century Sweden, knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns Gunnar Björnstrand) return from the Crusades only to find that the land has been scourged with the Black Plague.  And although Antonius managed to dodge him in combat overseas, Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come to claim him at home. Antonius’ religious faith was badly shaken by all he had seen and he seeks to postpone his end until he can find some clarity and perform one last meaningful act.  So he challenges Death to a game of chess and sets off towards his castle during the pauses between moves.  Jöns, a total cynic, goes along for the ride.

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On the way, the two come upon an performing company made up of a lecherous actor/manager and an idyllic little family consisting of Mia (Bibi Andersson), her husband Jof, a juggling visionary and dreamer, and baby Mikael.  When the troupe performs at a vllage festival, the manager runs off with a smithy’s wife and eventually the smithy and his wife join in the journey to the castle.  The final member of the group is a seemingly mute girl who has been been rescued by Jons from a predatory cleric.

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Death is never very far away from Antonius and has no answers to his questions about the afterlife and God.  The knight is unable to find the key from an allegedly demon possessed witch or in religious rituals like self-flagellation that the faithful believe will protect them.  The closest he is able to come to a meaning in life is the serenity of a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk with the good and gentle family. He is ready to face Death with all his doubts when they are safe.

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This is a beautiful, mesmerizing  experience that is particularly suitable for any film lover’s bucket list.  As deep as its concerns are, my brother and I found ourselves laughing out loud throughout.  I especially love the part where Death has the manager cornered up a tree.  All Jons’ lines are also gems.

The Seventh Seal and its participants won a number of prizes at film festivals, including the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.

Original 1957 Trailer

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The Mortal Stormmortal storm poster
Directed by Frank Borzage
Written by Claudine West, Hans Rameau and George Froeschel based on the book by Phyllis Bottome
1940/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

First viewing/Warner Archive DVD
#146 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

[first lines] [white clouds appear; they quickly turn to storm clouds] Narrator: When man was new upon the earth, he was frightened by the dangers of the elements. He cried out, “The gods of the lightning are angry, and I must kill my fellow man to appease them!” As man grew bolder, he created shelters against the wind and the rain and made harmless the force of the lightning. But within man himself were elements strong as the wind and terrible as the lightning. And he denied the existence of these elements, because he dared not face them. The tale we are about to tell is of the mortal storm in which man finds himself today. Again he is crying, “I must kill my fellow man!” Our story asks, “How soon will man find wisdom in his heart and build a lasting shelter against his ignorant fears?”

I may be in the minority here (this film is very highly rated by IMDb users) but I still don’t understand why I needed to see The Mortal Storm before I died.

Kindly, loveable Professor Roth (Frank Morgan), a “non-Aryan” (at no time is the word Jew uttered in this film) is on his second marriage. He is the head of a happy family and his wife’s two sons treat him like their own father.  He and his wife also have a grown daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan) and a young son of their own.  Professor Roth is also beloved at work, as evidenced by the huge 60th birthday celebration held for him.  Students Martin (James Stewart) and Fritz (Robert Young) make speeches on the occasion.  Both of them are in love with Freya but Fritz has been the most aggressive and she finally accepts his proposal.

On the very night of  Roth’s birthday dinner, news comes that Hitler has been appointed Chancellor of Germany.  Roth’s two stepsons and Fritz are delighted and rush off to attend a meeting; everyone else is aghast.  We follow Roth’s slow decline from esteemed professor to pariah and the breakup of his happy home. Martin stands up for another intellectual and is forced to leave the country.  After Freya is prevented from leaving Germany when she is found carrying a scientific paper written by her father, Martin returns for her.  Fritz and the stepsons are repeatedly put in situations where they “need” to refuse help to their former friends/family.  With Maria Ouspenskaya as Martin’s mother and Robert Stack as one of Roth’s stepsons.

mortal storm 1

Watching this the day after I revisited Rome, Open City was perhaps not a great idea. The contrast just highlighted my impression that these were movie Germans in movie situations.   It was OK but I couldn’t get too excited about it.

Trailer

‘Northwest Passage’ — Book 1, Roger’s Rangers (1940)

‘Northwest Passage’ — Book 1, Roger’s Rangersnorthwest passage poster
Directed by King Vidor
Written by Lawrence Stallings and Talbot Jennings from a novel by Kenneth Roberts
1940/USA
Loew’s/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

First viewing/Streaming on Amazon Instant Video

Maj. Robert Rogers: Now w’re under orders to wipe out this town, so see that you kill every fighting Indian – kill ’em quick and kill ’em dead, and for Heaven’s sake, don’t kill any of our own Indians and don’t kill any of the white captives. Our own Indians will have white crosses on their backs, so keep your eyes open. Don’t make any mistakes.

This is well-made and Spencer Tracy is excellent as usual but ultimately it was not for me.

The setting is on the frontier of colonial America.  Langdon Towne (Robert Young) is an outspoken would-be painter who gets on the wrong side of the powers that be.  ‘Hunk’ Marriner (Walter Brennan) is his sidekick and also in trouble for speaking his mind.  The two need to leave town quick and are finagled by Maj. Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy) into joining up with his company of Indian fighters in the French and Indian Wars.

The rest of the story covers the adventures of Rogers’ Rangers in combat and as they slowly starve on the long road back to civilization.  At the very end of the movie, Rogers is tasked to take his men on an exploratory mission to look for the Northwest Passage.  That is the only time it comes up in the film.  With Ruth Hussey as Langdon’s sweetheart.

northwest passage 1

I’m just not too keen on this “glorious battle” manly sort of war story.  ‘Northwest Passage’ is also firmly in the “Indians are savages” camp which doesn’t help.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Color Cinematography.

Trailer

Rome, Open City (1945)

Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta)rome open city poster
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Written by Sergio Amidei, Federico Felini, and Roberto Rossellini
1945/Italy
Excelsa Film

Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#192 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.1/10; I say 9/10

Major Bergman: Then I’ll tell you who he is. He’s subversive, he’s fought with the Reds in Spain. His life is dedicated to fighting society, religion. He is an atheist… your enemy…

Don Pietro: I am a Catholic priest. I believe that those who fight for justice and truth walk in the path of God and the paths of God are infinite

This is must-see viewing for its unforgettable images, outstanding acting, and poetic dialogue…not so much for the rather heavy-handed plot.

The story is divided into two parts but the second flows directly out of the first.  The Nazi occupation is nearing its end and Rome has been classified an “open”, or undefended, city.  This does not mean that the Germans are scaling back their harassment of the citizenry, however.  They continue to round up able-bodied men for work in German factories and to ruthlessly pursue rebels.

Pina (Anna Magnani) and Francesco are set to be married the following day by Don Pietro Pelligrini (Aldo Fabrizi), a partisan priest.  It is about time since Pina is obviously pregnant with Francesco’s child.  She already has one son, Marcello, who loves Francesco as a father.  Francesco is involved with a liberation group and is friends with group leader Giorgio Manfredi.  Manfredi is on the run and hides out in Pina’s apartment. But the building is raided by Nazis when local boys blow up a gasoline tanker.  Manfredi escapes but Francesco is captured leading the fiery Pina to lose control – to no avail as it costs her her life while Francesco is later rescued.

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In the second half, Manfredi decides to hide with his ex-girlfriend Marina, a materialistic drug addict whose habit is being fed by an evidently lesbian German spy.  Marina overhears her man talking about going into hiding at a monastery with the help of Don Pietro.  In no time at all Marina betrays him and Manfredi and the priest are picked up by the Gestapo.  Effete Gestapo boss Major Bergman has discovered that Manfredi is actually Luigi Ferraris and high in the resistance organization.  Bergman is determined to get information on the officers before morning and subjects him to the most cruel torture, torturing the priest at the same time by forcing him to listen to his screams.  Only Francesco and little Marcello are spared to carry on.

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The plot is fairly standard for its time, with not only evil but sexually “deviant” Nazis and innocent Italians but is handled with some finesse by the writers.  I enjoyed looking for places where Fellini showed his hand.  The paralyzed grandfather in the bed is a close cousin to the man that refuses to come down out of the tree in Amarcord!  The scene with the priest and the nude statue at the art dealer is also classic.  These elements of comedy and some rather poetic exchanges on morality and survival help lift the story into classic territory.  But it is the extraordinary images and powerful acting that make the film.  The scene with Magnani running after the truck, the entire torture scene, and an execution are etched permanently in my memory.

I had only ever seen this classic before in an el cheapo edition complete with extremely sparse English sub-titles.  The restored and newly re-titled Criterion Collection version was an entirely different experience.  I learned from the commentary that while the film is often cited as launching the Italian neo-realist movement, it does not meet the classic definition of the genre since it features professional actors (and what actors!) and many of the interiors were filmed on sound stages.

Trailer (Restoration re-release)

 

 

The Long Voyage Home (1940)

The Long Voyage Homelong voyage home poster
Directed by John Ford
Adapted for the screen by Dudley Nichols based on the “Four Seas” plays by Eugene O’Neill
1940/USA
Argosy Pictures/Walter Wanger Productions

First viewing/Streaming on Hulu Plus

 

Donkeyman: Best thing to do with memories is… forget em.

Alfred Hitchcock was not the only director with two Best Picture nominees in 1940.  It took me this long to catch up with John Ford’s other masterpiece of the year.

The story is basically a series of vignettes as could be expected from the source material – four different plays from early in Eugene O’Neill’s career.  These are woven together by an ongoing thread of sailor Ole Oleson’s (John Wayne) oft frustrated efforts to leave the sea and get home to his mother’s farm.  The merchant ship is carrying a load of ammunition to England during the war.  We get a “going away party” with some Carribean women, a violent storm at sea, bombing of the ship by an enemy plane, and the saga of an alcoholic (Ian Hunter) who is mistaken for a spy.  With a fantastic ensemble cast including Thomas Mitchell, Barry Fitzgerald, Wilfred Lawson, Mildred Natwick, John Qualen, Ward Bond, and Arthur Shields.  The other star of this film is Gregg Toland’s phenomenal cinematography.

long voyage home 1

Like in Stagecoach, John Wayne is thought of as the star of this film and he does well as a quiet naive Swede, blessedly with very little dialogue.  But the most memorable performances in a cast of very gifted actors come from Thomas Mitchell, Barry Fitzgerald, and Ian Hunter.  The scene in which Mitchell reads a letter written to the helpless Hunter while the rest of the crew looks on is truly moving.

This movie had me hooked by the end of the dialogue-free opening sequence as each of the men listen to the sounds of women’s singing floating out to their ship from a nearby island. The shots  reveal the character of each sailor with masterful economy and  beauty. And then we go on to the poetic language of loneliness, comradeship, and fear that makes up the rest of the piece.  This is the kind of discovery that makes me glad to be doing this exercise.  Very highly recommended.

The Long Voyage Home was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Black and White Cinematography (Gregg Toland), Best Film Editing, Best Special Effects, and Best Original Score (Richard Hageman).

Clip

 

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the CornerShop Around the Corner poster
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Samson Raphaelson based on a play by Miklós Lázló
1940/USA
Metro-Goldwn-Mayer
Repeat viewing/Warner Home Video DVD

Alfred Kralik: There might be a lot we don’t know about each other. You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.

Klara Novak (Miss Novak): Well I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… which doesn’t work.  

I sold most of my DVD collection a while back but I kept this one because I like to pull it out every Christmas.  It is my idea of the perfect Golden Age romantic comedy and brings a tear to my eye and a smile to my face every single time.  Its omission from The List is one of the most mind-boggling lapses by the editors of The Book.

The setting is a leather goods store in Budapest before the war.  Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is its chief salesman and the protegee of irrascible owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan).  The employees all do their best to stay out of the way of the basically kindly boss’s temper.  One summer day, Klara Novak comes into the shop to look for work.  Matuschek hires her, basically to prove a point to Kralik with whom he has been arguing.  We soon find out that Kralik has been trying to expand his cultural horizons through correspondence with a lady pen-pal he found through a newspaper ad.

shop around the corner 1

Segue to Christmastime, six months later.  Kralik and Novak have apparently been arguing the entire time.  Kralik has fallen in love with his pen-pal and has arranged to meet her. Novak now has a boyfriend and suspects he will soon pop the question.  In the meantime, relations between Kralik and Matuschek have reached rock-bottom.  Surprises await everyone concerned.  With chameleon actor Joseph Schildkraut as a fawning dandy of a salesman and Felix Bressart as a married salesman who will put up with anything to keep his job.

 

 

shop around the corner 3

This one has some of the wittiest dialogue ever and is loaded with the Lubitsch touch.  All the acting is superb.  Frank Morgan gives his best performance ever for my money.  To be fair to the editors of The Book, the Academy also did not recognize a priceless gem when they saw one.

The story has been remade often but never equaled — as the movies In the Good Old Summertime and You’ve Got Mail  and as the Broadway musical She Loves Me.

Trailer

Comparison – same scene from You’ve Got Mail and The Shop Around the Corner

The Stars Look Down (1940)

The Stars Look Down Stars-Look-Down-Poster
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by J.B. Williams, A.J. Cronin, and A. Coppel from the book by A. J. Cronin
1940/UK
Grand National Pictures/Grafton Films

First viewing/Streaming on Amazon Prime Instant Video

Robert Fenwick: On the other side of that coal seam is a million tons of flood water ready to rush right down on top of us.

Richard Barras: You don’t think I’d take a chance in floodin’ me own mine, do you, Fenwick?

Robert Fenwick: Well, show us the plans of them old workings, then!

This is an excellent, if dark, drama with outstanding performances by its leads.

The story largely takes place in a North England coal mining village.  Robert Fenwick is an outspoken miner who brings the men out on strike, over opposition by the union, when the mine owner insists they mine a seam Fenwick believes is at risk of flooding.  Robert’s son Davey (Michael Redgrave) has received a scholarship and wants to use his education to better the lot of the men.  During the course of the strike, the starving men loot a butcher shop, Robert gets thrown in jail, and Davey’s friend young reprobate Joe Gowan (Emlyn Williams) robs the till and sets off for the high life in town.

Joe has been romancing his landlord’s daughter Jenny (Margaret Lockwood), along with a number of other girls.  To make him jealous, Jenny takes up with Davey.  When Joe skips town, Jenny uses her considerable powers to sweet talk Davey into marrying her, compromising his education.  Davey is forced to try to continue it, while supporting her, back in the village.  Nothing goes right and then tragedy strikes.

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This is a precursor of those “kitchen sink” British dramas that are filled with shrewish unfulfilled housewives.  And yet, like those films, it is deeply moving.  Redgrave and Lockwood play serious characters very far from their usual urbane selves and give wonderful performances.  I had not seen Emlyn Williams (better known as the author of The Corn Is Green) before.  He is wonderful as the despicable Joe.  Recommended.

The Stars Look Down was named one of the top 10 films of its year by the National Board of Review.

I notice that the full movie is currently available on YouTube.

Clip

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

The Ghost BreakersGhost Breakers poster
Directed by George Marshall
Written by Walter de Leon based on a play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard
1940/USA
Paramount Pictures

First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Larry Lawrence: [the power goes out in the storm] Basil Rathbone must be having a party.

I am somewhat immune to his charms but this is really one of Bob Hope’s funnier films.

Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) has inherited a reportedly cursed and haunted mansion on an island off the coast of Cuba.  Before she can even set sail to visit the property, she receives many warnings and threats with regard to the place.  Radio announcer Larry Lawrence (Hope) gets dragged in via a complicated gangster sub-plot, falls for Mary, and rallies to her assistance with the reluctant aid of his African-American factotum Alex (Willie Best).  The two battle ghosts, zombies, and all-too-human opponents on the island.  With Paul Lukas as a suspicious real estate agent, Anthony Quinn as twins, Richard Carlson as a friend of Mary’s, and Noble Johnson as the zombie.

ghost breakers 1

It is hard to believe there was a time in which the mere color of someone’s skin was thought to be hilarious.  That is the basis of several of the quips here. If you can overlook the lapses into crude stereotyping, the movie is otherwise an entertaining romp. Goddard and Hope are good together.

Trailer

Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)

Broadway Melody of 1940broadway melody of 1940 poster
Directed by Norman Taurog
Written by Leon Gordon and George Oppenheimer from an original story by Jack McGowan and Dore Schary
1940/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

First viewing/Streaming on Amazon Instant Video

When they begin the beguine/ it brings back the sound of music so tender/ it brings back a night of tropical splendor/ it brings back a memory of green — “Begin the Beguine”, lyrics by Cole Porter

There is some really splendid dancing in Fred Astaire’s only pairing with tapper extraordinaire Eleanor Powell.

Johnny Brett (Astaire) and King Shaw (George Murphy) are a small-time dance team in New York.  One day Broadway producer Bob Casey (Frank Morgan) spots the pair and decides Johnny is just the dancer to be Clare Bennett’s (Powell) leading man in her new show.  However, there is a classic Hollywood misunderstanding and the call comes to King instead.  Even though Johnny has long loved Clare from afar, he supports King’s good luck 100%, even contributing some dance moves to him.  But King has a bit of an alcohol problem and newly swelled head and Johnny’s friendship is tested to the max.  .

 

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Astaire and Powell are fantastic together and their numbers are really something to see.  Murphy also excels, keeping up with both of them step for step as needed.  Powell, while very pleasant, is no Rogers in the acting department, though, and the script lacks the luster of the Astaire-Rogers classics.

Clip Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell tapping to “Begin the Beguine”