Off to Big D

And that spells Dallas …  We will visit my husband’s grandson who is an exchange student near there and then head down to near the border for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  It will be our second year.  I look forward to getting reacquainted with these beauties:

Green Jay

Green Jay

Yesterday, I revisited Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). I’ll be back reviewing it and other movies on November 12.

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Happy Halloween!

Freaks (1932)

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Directed by Tod Browning
Writers uncredited; suggested by a story by Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins
1932/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Repeat viewing/Amazon Instant Video
#73 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.0/10; I say 8.0/10

 

Hercules: They’re going to make you one of them, my peacock!

My second viewing and I am still sorting out my feelings about this film.  Is it exploitation or art?  Probably both.

Sideshow “freaks” and circus performers have an uneasy co-existence off stage.  Some of the performers, including clown Phroso (such a young Wallace Ford) and strongman’s ex-assistance Venus (Leila Hyams) befriend the sideshow attractions.  The owner’s wife takes them on excursions and tries to protect them from prying eyes.  Beautiful trapeze artist  Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) catches the eye of “little person” Hans.  She thinks his infatuation is hilarous but loves his presents.  The relationship develops, breaking the heart of Han’s equally diminutive fiance Frieda.

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When Frieda confronts Olga and accuses her of wanting Hans only for his money, she lets slip that Hans has recently inherited a fortune.  This is all Olga and her secret lover the strongman need to hear.  Olga marries Hans and plans how to make his death look like an accident.  Olga’s horror at being invited to join the community of freaks only strengthens her resolve. When the sideshow attractions learn of this, they come to the aid of their friend and exact a cruel revenge.

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The plot is almost secondary to the slice of life of a sideshow.  We get many snippets of the “acts” of the attractions, handless performers lighting cigarettes, eating, etc.  The wedding banquet scene and the revenge sequence are powerful film making by any standard. On the one hand, the presentation of the deformed performers is unashamed and human. On the other hand, the whole thing is fundamentally exploitative and disturbing.

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Laura (1944)

3490_lauraLaura
Directed by Otto Preminger
Written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt from a novel by Vera Caspary
1944/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Repeat viewing/Amazon Prime Instant Video
#176 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Mark McPherson: Yeah, dames are always pulling a switch on you.

Once you suspend your disbelief, this is a atmospheric and clever film noir with Gene Tierney at her best and a wonderful Oscar-nominated turn by Clifton Webb.  If you have not seen the film, stop reading this immediately and watch it.  It is impossible to describe the plot without spoilers.

The story is told both as flashbacks and in real time.  Laura (Tierney) has been murdered in her apartment with a shotgun blast to the face.  We quickly become acquainted with two men who loved her, both of whom are prime suspects.  There is effete, acerbic columnist Waldo Lydecker (Webb) who more or less adopted Laura as his protege.  He describes her as almost an ethereal being, far superior to mere mortals but owing entirely to him for her connections and acquisition of culture.  Then there is the weak but charmingly Southern Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) who was engaged to marry her.  He sees a different but just as glorified Laura.  The last person on the suspect list is Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) who is in love with Shelby herself.

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Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) becomes fascinated with Laura’s portrait and description in the course of his investigation.  One night, as he is dreaming in front of the portrait, Laura appears in the flesh.  She is nothing like what we would have imagined. Instead, she is a beautiful but no-nonsense career girl with a mind of her own.  And now she is another suspect in the murder of the woman whose body was found.  The rest of the movie follows the investigation.

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This classic film noir features whip smart dialogue and a clever, if convoluted plot.  It also looks really gorgeous.  The performances, especially that of Webb, are excellent.  I can take or leave both Andrews and Tierney but they are both perfect for their parts here.  Yet somehow, while recognizing all its merits, this is not a favorite with me.  It might be that the story seems a bit too contrived or that the characters, while interesting, are not all that relatable with the exception of the living Laura.

Joseph LaShelle won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. Laura was nominated for four additional Academy Awards:  Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Webb); Best Director; Best Writing, Screenplay and Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White.  How did this miss a nomination for its score?

Trailer

 

 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

A Canterbury Tale220px-Canterburytaleposter
Written and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
1944/UK
The Archers/Independent Producers
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Thomas Colpeper, JP: Well, there are more ways than one of getting close to your ancestors. Follow the old road, and as you walk, think of them and of the old England. They climbed Chillingbourne Hill, just as you. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today. And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you’re only seeing what their eyes saw.

Powell and Pressburger made a haunting and magical film about young people starting out life in wartime from a very odd detective story involving the identity of the “Glue Man”.

The film begins with a short prelude featuring pilgrims to Canterbury in Chaucer’s time.

Three young people get off a train at Chillingbourne, a small Kentish town which is the stop before Canterbury.  Two of them intended to – Sgt. Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price, Kind Hearts and Coronets), who is getting ready to be shipped overseas from the local military base, and Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), who has come as part of the Women’s Land Army to work on the farm of Thomas Colpeper (oft-time Nazi Eric Portman, The 49th Parallel).  Sgt. Bob Johnson (non-actor Sgt. John Sweet) of the American Army was actually headed for Canterbury on leave but jumped the gun at the wrong stop.  He is now stuck in Chillingbourne until the next morning.  They are told that they must report to Colpeper, the local magistrate, before going to a local inn for the night.

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In the darkness, Alison is almost immediately attacked by a man in uniform who pours glue on her hair.  He is the notorious Glue Man, and has struck ten times before.  When they arrive to meet Culpeper, he is affable but refuses to keep Alison to work on his farm, not considering a woman to be farm labor.  Peter is off to the base but Bob stays on in a room in which Elizabeth I once slept and Alison is boarded at the same inn.  Alison is hired for the farm of the manageress of the inn.  Having nothing a lot better to do, Bob agrees to stay on for the day and help Alison with her investigation of the Glue Man.  He proves to be a dogged detective.  The investigation runs through the length of the film.

canterbury tale 1The actual theme develops from the back stories of these people and their interaction with the beautiful and ancient landscape.  Alison camped in a caravan near the village with her archeologist fiancé three years earlier.  He became a pilot and went missing with his airplane.  Alison has an almost mystical connection to the place.  Bob is a fish out of water, who is heartbroken over his failure to get any mail from his girl, but is like a sponge absorbing everything about his surroundings.  Peter is a sophisticated Londoner who has little use for the countryside.  He was an academically trained organist who could find work only in a cinema before the war.  Thomas Culpeper is also the town magistrate and rides circuit trying cases.  He is also a history buff, outdoor enthusiast, and philosopher who lectures servicemen about the area. Culpeper and Alison have a natural sympathy.  It is not spoiling anything to say he is the prime suspect in the “Glue Man” case.

One day, the trajectory of all these people puts them on the train to Canterbury.  Peter is on the way to turn Culpeper into the police.  The three share a compartment with Culpeper.  He tells them pilgrims went to Canterbury to get blessings or do penance.  All our young people are profoundly changed by their brief stay in the cathedral town.

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It is incredibly refreshing to see a film involving young men and women who have an agenda outside their love lives.  They are all struggling in a some way to come to grips with the war and with their own coming of age.

This is like a love letter to Britain.  It is exquisitely filmed.  The shots of the interior of the cathedral, which were all made in the studio, are breathtaking.  The countryside scenes are also achingly beautiful.  With the exception of John Sweet, who can charitably be described as earnest but somehow moving, the acting is superb.  Most of all I appreciated the mood of the thing.  The ending sequence gave me the chills.

Sweet’s acting is one of this films few drawbacks, though I came to like him.  (Burgess Meredith had been picked for the part but was injured.)  Some viewers might also have a problem with the very strange resolution of the detective story.  At any rate, I urge anyone who has not seen this to give it a chance.

Clip

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Meet Me in St. Louismeet me in st. louis poster
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Written by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoff from the book by Sally Benson
1944/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Repeat viewing/Warner Home Video Special Edition DVD
#177 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Through the years/ We all will be together,/ If the Fates allow/ Hang a shining star upon the highest bough./ And have yourself/ A merry little Christmas now. — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, lyrics by Ralph Blane

A musical lover’s musical with the poignancy of a happy family in a simpler time.

The year is 1903 and the place is St. Louis, Missouri, where the Smith family is looking forward to the opening of the World’s Fair.  They are relatively well-to-do.  Father Lon (Leon Ames) is a lawyer and mother Anna (Mary Astor) stays home and makes ketchup with housekeeper Katie (Marjorie Main).  There are three older children —  young Lon, who is about to go off to Princeton, and daughters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland), whose lives revolve around boys.  There is a longish gap before we get to 12-year-old Agnes and little 5-year-old Tootie, everybody’s baby and quite the scamp.  Both of the little  girls adore everything gruesome.

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Rose is waiting for a marriage proposal from her beau and Esther has a crush on the boy next door, John Truett.  Esther and John finally meet and gradually fall in love.  The father announces he has received a promotion which means the family will have to move to New York.  The girls are devastated that their own plans will be ruined and nobody looks forward to leaving the comfortable home they have made or to missing the World’s Fair they have waited for so long.  That’s it, the whole story in a nutshell.

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I have seen this movie more times than I want to count and I cry every time.  Every single time.  It always starts by “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas but I ususally mist up when Ames and Astor start singing “You and I” (that’s producer Arthur Freed dubbing Ames).  I must identify with with the powerlessness of children in the face of decisions, even well-intentioned decisions, made for them by their parents.  Sure the crises seem trivial but when we are young trivial things take on an immense importance.  There is also a deep nostalgia or longing for the kind of idealized family life Minnelli captures so well here.  This had to have had a powerful effect on folks at home during World War II when so many people were separated.

I haven’t gotten to the more obvious pleasures of this film, which are the fabulous color photography and lighting, the wonderful songs, and the phenomenon which is Margaret O’Brian’s Tootie.  That Halloween profile in courage is among my favorite scenes ever.  I don’t think Judy Garland ever looked more beautiful or sounded better.  I will leave my mash note at that.  Highly recommended.

Author Sally Benson was the original Agnes Smith and, yes, in real life the family eventually did move to New York.

Margaret O’Brien won a Special Academy Award for Best Child Actress of 1944.  Meet Me in St. Louis was nominated in the categories of: Best Writing, Screenplay; Best Cinematography, Color (George J. Folsey); Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture; and Best Music, Original Song (“The Trolley Song”).

Re-release trailer

Lifeboat (1944)

LifeboatLifeboat poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
By John Steinbeck, Screenplay by Jo Swerling
1944/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

 

Gus Smith: A guy can’t help being a German if he’s born a German, can he?

John Kovac: [referring to Willie] Neither can a snake help being a rattlesnake if he’s born a rattlesnake! That don’t make him a nightingale! Get him out of here!

Hitchcock made other one-set movies but none as restrictive as this story of nine people floating at sea on a lifeboat.  No one could have done more to keep the action moving but this lacks enough scope to be counted among the Master’s greatest works.

After their freighter is torpedoed a motley cross-section of humanity is stranded on a lifeboat.  The people range from an industrial tycoon (Henry Hull) and a Connie, a ritzy journalist (Tallulah Bankhead) through several crew members (William Bendix, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee, and John Hodiak) to a nurse and a young mother carrying a dead baby.  Into this volatile mix comes Willy (Walter Slezak), a German survivor of the sinking of the submarine that torpedoed the ship.  The German clearly has a more advanced knowledge of navigation and the others squabble over whether he can be trusted or should even be fed from their scant supplies.  Connie, already unpopular due to her snooty ways, is the only member of the Allied group that can communicate with Willy in his own language.  The situation goes from bad to worse as food and water begin to run out.

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I like but don’t love Lifeboat.  The acting is the big plus.  Talullah Bankhead, despite her notorious picadillos on the set, is excellent.  I believe this is the only movie I have seen her in.  I like Slezak more and more each time I see him.  He makes a nasty but affable Nazi. The problem I have is that it’s impossible believe that Connie could have presented herself perfectly groomed and toting a well-stocked handbag and a typewriter into this situation.  Hitchcock had to resort to other lapses of logic to keep his story moving. There’s a bit more propaganda than might have been called for as well.

Lifeboat was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories:  Best Director; Best Writing, Original Story; and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Glen MacWilliams).  I’m surprised it didn’t get a nod for its special effects.

Clip – “The Lord is my Shepard”

 

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Hail the Conquering Herohailtheconqueringhero
Written and directed by Preston Sturges
1944/USA
Paramount Pictures
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

 

Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith: I knew the Marines could do almost anything, but I never knew they could do anything like this.

Bugsy: You got no idea!

Eddie Bracken manages to salvage a shred of his dignity in another madcap wartime comedy from writer-director Sturges.

Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Bracken) comes from a long line of Marines including a father who died in battle shortly after he was born.  So Woodrow was devastated when he was discharged from the Marines after only one month for chronic hayfever.  He went to work in a shipyard to hide his shame from his mother.  Woodrow is drowning his sorrows in a bar when six marines drop in, having lost all their money gambling.  He treats them to a round of drinks and tells his sad story.   Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demerest) gets a brilliant idea to call Woodrow’s mother and tell her he has been discharged for injuries suffered on Guadalcanal.

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Woodrow reluctantly returns to his small town with the Marines in tow.  Nobody counted on a mother’s pride and Woodrow is appalled with his huge reception at the station.  All the big wigs have come out to make speeches, three different bands are playing, often at the same time, and Woodrow’s ex-girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines) is there to greet him with a kiss.  The Marines are delighted with this and keep building up Woody’s achievements, over his strenous objections, to the point where he is drafted as the reform candidate for mayor.

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It was perhaps a mistake to watch this and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek back-to-back. Hail the Conquering Hero is funny with some pointed satire of American politics but does not quite reach the heights of hilarity of the other film for me.  Maybe it is the comparative lack of slapstick or the very slightly more serious theme.  Bracken does quite well without a stutter and with a little more oomph than he had as Norval Jones.  (I just notice the man has no forehead or chin!)  I liked the orphan soldier who was so solicitous of Woodrow’s mother’s feelings.   Raines was quite OK but plays her character as a conventional ingenue.

Preston Sturges was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for Hail the Conquering Hero, making two nominations in the same category for Sturges in 1944.  The other was for the screenplay of The Miracle on Morgan’s Creek.

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Gaslight (1944)

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Directed by George Cukor
Written by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, and John H. Balderston from the play “Angel Street” by Patrick Hamilton
1944/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#179 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Gregory Anton: Jewels are wonderful things. They have a life of their own.

A gorgeously mounted thriller with an Oscar-winning performance by Ingrid Bergman.

A beautiful opera singer is murdered in her London townhouse.  The body is discovered by her devastated young niece Paula.  Paula (Bergman) is sent to Italy to study singing.  Years pass and the murder is not solved.  Paula’s teacher begins to notice that Paula’s heart is not in her music.  That is because it has been given to suave Continental pianist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer).  They marry soon thereafter.  Paula, the trauma of her aunt’s death having been overcome by love, is persuaded to move with her new husband to her aunt’s house in London.

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Gregory wastes no time in isolating Paula from the rest of the world.  He then begins a course of verbal abuse.  This, coupled with mysterious noises coming from overhead and the flickering of the house’s gaslights, begins to convince Paula that she is really going insane.  On one of the couples rare excursions, policeman Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) recognizes Paula from her resemblance to her aunt whom he greatly admired as a boy. Brian opens the closed case file on the aunt’s murder and starts working it.  Meanwhile, things go from bad to worse in the Anton household, Gregory having found an ally in the saucy young housemaid Nancy (Angela Lansbury in her film debut).  With Dame May Whitty as a nosy neighbor.

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Ingrid Bergman goes from rosy cheeked enthusiasm to pallid distress during the course of the film, demonstrating a range unexplored in her previous work.  Boyer’s interpretation takes few risks with his suave persona but he does look like someone a woman could plausibly both love and fear.  I preferred Anton Walbrook’s more brutal portrayal of the role in the 1940 British version of the story. Angela Lansbury was fantastic right out of the box, taking every nuance of her rather small part and making her character sleazy, cheeky and totally memorable.  The claustrophobic Victorian sets are a thing of beauty as are Bergman’s costumes.

Ingrid Bergman won the Oscar for Best Actress for Gaslight, which also won the award for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White.  The film was nominated in the categories of: Best Picture; Best Actor (Boyer); Best Supporting Actress (Lansbury); Best Writing, Screenplay; and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Joseph Ruttenberg).

Trailer (spoilers)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creekkinopoisk.ru
Written and Directed by Preston Sturges
1944/USA
Paramount Pictures
Repeat viewing/Amazon Instant Video

 

Norval Jones: Ignatz Ra-ra-ratzkywatzky. That – that fits alright.

Trudy Kockenlocker: Oh, phooey!

Preston Sturges, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways …

Dippy teenager Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is the peppiest girl in town with a weakness for servicemen.  She lives with her widower father Edmund (William Demerest), the Town Constable, and younger sister Emmy (Diana Lynn), a practical sort who is handy with the wisecracks.  Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) has been in love with Trudy since grade school.  His greatest regret is that he has been declared 4-F by every branch of the military for high blood pressure.  When Norval gets excited or nervous he sees “spots.”

When her father refuses to let her go to a dance for servicemen about to go overseas, Trudy cons Norval into “taking her to the movies”.  She asks him to wait and then departs in his car to the dance.  She doesn’t return until 8 a.m.  By then she has had a few too many “lemonades”.  When Norval takes her home, her father assumes the worst.

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Trudy has only hazy memories of her evening.  Gradually, she dimly remembers getting married to someone with a funny name, something like “Radzkiwadzki”.  She used a false name at the ceremony and has no proof of anything.  Later, a positive pregnancy test gives her all the proof she needs.

Norval may be the answer to her prayers.  But, after he proposes, she can’t go through with it and develops a true affection for him.  Despite everything, Norman is true blue and the two cook up a ridiculous scheme to get a marriage certificate in the names of Trudy Kockenlocker and Ignatz Radzkiwadzki so they can divorce and remarry under their right names.  Needless to say, the course of true love never did run smooth.  Sturges ties the whole thing up with a happy ending that must be seen to be believed.   With Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff reprising their roles as The Governor and The Boss from The Great McGintey in the framing sequences and a host of Sturges regulars.

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This movie is one gag after another.  If you didn’t like the last pratfall, wait 10 seconds and you will get a brilliant one-liner.  The performances are superb.  I especially like Eddie Bracken and I’m not big on comic stutterers.  Diana Lynn is a calm of deadpan humor in the hurricane of hysteria that surrounds her.  Sturges might have made better pictures but he never made a funnier one.  Highly recommended.

Preston Sturges was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.

Trailer

 

To Have and Have Not (1943)

To Have and Have Notmovie-have-and-have-not
Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner from the novel by Ernest Hemingway
1943/USA
Warner Bros.
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#178 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Slim: You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall have so much chemistry that it’s easy to forget how good the other elements of this film are.

The lead-in is a lot like that of Casablanca with the map pinpointing the exotic island of Martinique, governed by the Vichy French in the days before the U.S. joined the war. Harry (“Steve”) Morgan (Bogart) hires out his boat for deep-sea fishing excursions.  He is so short on cash that he has to get paid up front for the gas.  His constant companion, whom he cares for like a mother, is goofy drunkard Eddie (Walter Brennan).

The bar owned by Frenchy (Marcel Dalio) seems to be the main gathering place for expatriates on the island.  Into this mileu walks Marie (“Slim”) Browning (Bacall).  Slim is a young woman far from home and also down to her last few dollars.  She might be a waif if it weren’t that she could so clearly take care of her self.  The sparks fly as soon as Slim and Steve set eyes on each other.  Piano player Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) gets her a job singing at the bar.

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Steve’s political alliance is “minding his own business” but when his last customer stiffs him, and wanting to help Slim, he is persuaded by a few thousand francs to smuggle a French resistance fighter on his boat and back to Martinique.  Nothing goes particularly well and Steve has an opportunity to rise to the occasion.

have and have not 1This is a film with many pleasures.  The dialogue is fantastic throughout, not just during the famous love scenes.  I always forget how good Walter Brennan is until the next time I see him.  He is quite versatile when you get down to it, despite his distinctive voice and manner.  It’s fun to watch his little bits of business.  I think we would have been able to guess that the leading man and woman were giddy with new love even if we didn’t know it.  Bogart can’t suppress a silly grin at many points during his fine performance.  I picked out two new favorite parts.  The first is when Hoagy Carmichael sings “The Hong Kong Blues”.  The second is at the very end when Slim does a kind of samba out the door of the bar and Eddie echoes it with a little dance step of his own.  Recommended.

Amazingly, this film was ignored by the Academy at nominations time.  Michael Curtiz remade the Hemingway novel’s story, perhaps with greater fidelity, as The Breaking Point in 1950 with John Garfield and Patricia Neal.  I can recommend that film as well.

Clip – that scene