Star Wars (1977)

Star Warsstar-wars-movie-poster-1977
Directed by George Lucas
Written by George Lucas
1977/USA
Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#642 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi: Use the Force, Luke.

This made for great family Thanksgiving Day viewing.

As the story opens, Princess Leah (Carrie Fisher) is a captive of the Empire on a giant space station known as the Death Star.  She had been carrying secret plans stolen by Rebel Forces for use against the Empire and is only being kept alive in hopes that she can be forced to reveal their location.  Her principal inquisitor is the evil right-hand man of the Emperor, Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones).

Princess Leah hides the plans, along with a holographic message to one Obi-Wan Kenobi begging for help, on the robot R2-D2.  R2-D2 manages to escape the Death Star with his robot friend C-3PO.  They land on a desert planet, where after many adventures, they manage to connect with the farmer boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who happens also to be a skilled pilot.  Through Luke and his uncle, they locate Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness).  Obi-Wan tells Luke that he is the descendent of the once proud tradition of Jedi Knights, as is Obi-Wan himself.

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The group set out for Princess Leah’s home planet.  First they must find a suitable spacecraft.  They run up against mercenary hot-shot pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and he and his first mate Chewbacca form the final members of the team.  On the flight, Obi-Wan teaches Luke the religion and fighting skills of the Jedi Knights.  Many other adventures ensue before the boys can rescue the Princess, ending in a mano-to-mano encounter between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader.

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I am slightly too old for Star Wars to have formed a part of my formative years.  To me it is nothing more than an entertaining adventure story with some before-their-time special effects.  In thinking it over after this viewing, I think one of the things that may have made it such an icon was its position in film history.  The seventies were the era of anti-heroes in films and Star Wars returned audiences to a world of bright lights, escapism, and the battle of good versus evil.  It really was a ground breaker in that sense.

Star Wars won Academy Awards in the following categories:  Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Sound; Best Film Editing; Best Effects, Visual Effects; and Best Music, Original Score.  It was nominated for:  Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Guinness); Best Director; and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.  Ben Burtt won a Special Achievement Award for sound effects (for the creation of the alien, creature, and robot voices).

Original Trailer

Yojimbo (1961)

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Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Ryûsô Kikushima
1961/Japan
Kurosawa Production Company/Toho Company
Repeat viewing/Criterion Collection DVD

 

Sanjuro: You idiot, I’m not giving up yet. There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!

This is certainly the most fun film Kurasawa ever made. For all the violence, it just makes me smile.

A ronin (masterless samurai) wanders down a dusty trail when he gets to an intersection. He throws a stick to show him in which direction to walk.  On his walk, he meets a silk maker who fills him in on the situation in the local town.  It seems the town has divided into two warring families headed by the owners of the town’s gambling ring and brothel.  The town has been unable to hold its silk market ever since.  When he hits town, he hears more bad news from the innkeeper.  The coffin maker has been doing a booming business.  He also hears there is money to be made as bodyguard to one of the families. The ronin decides the place needs a thorough clean-up and plans accordingly.

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When asked his name, the ronin spots a mulberry field and adopts it as his moniker. Sanjuro (Toshiro Mofune) is thus born.  Sanjuro starts out by taking on three hired thugs and dispatching them in about 10 seconds with his mighty sword.  His street cred established, he announces he will work for the highest bidder, thus escalating the friction between the two sides.  But he has no intention of working for either.  The younger brother (Tatsuya Nakadai)  of one of the gang leaders shows up with a gun in his hands, a real novelty in these parts (it is 1860), and starts swaggering around like he owned the place.

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An county inspector shows up in town and the gangs must put their feud on hold.  The inspector finally leaves to investigate the murder of another official in a neighboring town, arranged courtesy of one of the families in our town.  Sanjuro gets wind of this and is able to stir up even more trouble when a family kidnaps the hired killers and a series of prisoner exchanges ensues.  One of the prisoners is the wife of a man who lost her to an old silk merchant (Takashi Shimura) in a sake game.  Sanjuro uses his cunning and his sword to free the woman.  His deed is discovered and it looks like his number might finally be up.

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My brother is here for Thanksgiving, so time for another mini classic film festival.  We watched Yojimbo with my husband and it was a big hit all around.

If the story sounds familiar, it is because it was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.  Very little adaptation would be required because all the Western tropes are present in the original.  We get a damsel in distress, a strong silent hero, hired thugs, and a climactic face-off on main street.  But for the lack of horses, the costumes and the scenery, this could be a Western.  The music also helps with the effect.

Spaghetti Westerns also make me smile but not as much as this movie.  I love the goofy brothel women and the sad-sack army of degenerates on both side.  That giant with the hammer slays me.  Mifune is at his prime.  Much more restrained than in most of his previous roles, a sense of humor underlies everything he does.  And yet this is very much a Kurosawa film, complete with torrential downpour.  I had a hard time selecting stills for this review because all of them were just framed so brilliantly.  I guess there were too many Kurosawa films on the 1001 Movies List.  See it anyway, preferably long before you die.

 

Trailer

Torment (1944)

Torment Torment_(1944)(Hets)
Directed by Alf Sjöberg
Written by Ingmar Bergman
1944/Sweden
Svensk Filmindustri
First viewing/Hulu Plus

 

Caligula: Cheating, my good sir, cheating!

Torment is a reminder that Ingmar Bergman was as great a screenwriter as he was a director.  This is his very first time out and it’s impressive.  Certainly not something to watch while depressed though!

All the boys in 4th year Latin hate and fear their sadistic teacher, whom they call “Caligula” behind his back.  Caligula (Stig Järrel) delights in roaming through the class waving his stick around and pouncing on each victim unawares.  He conducts the student’s recitation like a prosecutor cross-examining the defendant in a capital murder trial.  His favorite target seems to be Jan-Erik Widgren, an artistic, sensitive boy who seems remarkably well-prepared with his studies for this treatment.  When he spots some penciled notes in the boy’s text he gives him a demerit for cheating and calls his father.  Unfortunately, Jan’s father seems to share some of Caligula’s characteristics himself.  Jan’s mother dotes on him but is utterly ineffective in dealing with the father.

Caligula_TormentIn the meantime, Jan happens upon a girl he has seen behind the counter at a tobacconist’s shop.  Bertha (Mai Zetterling) is staggering drunk through the streets.  Jan takes her home.  Bertha begs him to stay.  She is scared to death of a man who will not leave her alone, although she has tried to end the relationship.  Despite the idealistic Jan’s previous vow to hold out for love, he does so.  And although Bertha is a “bad girl”, love comes anyway.  But Bertha’s tormenter is still in the picture and Jan’s jealousy gets the better of him.  Then things get much, much worse for everybody concerned.

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This movie had me more on edge than any horror film.  I kept waiting for something terrible to happen and then it did.  On the other hand, the acting is superb.  Järrel, in particular, was phenomenal in a role in which he had to be despicable and pathetic all at the same time.  And of course Bergman was a genius at getting at the psychological truths of the human heart.  At least this movie has a somewhat redemptive ending.  It’s a bit more melodramatic than Bergman’s later work but still well worth seeing if you are in the mood for some well-made torment.

Clip – A hard lesson

 

The Lodger (1944)

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Directed by John Brahm
Written by Barré Lyndon from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes
1944/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

First viewing/Netflix rental

Kitty Langley: You can’t love and hate at the same time.

Slade: You can! And it’s a problem then…

There’s no doubt about the culprit in this remake of the source material for Hitchcock’s silent The Lodger (1927).  Laird Cregar is creepy yet oddly sympathetic as Jack the Ripper and the film drips with Gothic shadows and fog.

Mr. Slade (Cregar) is a mild-mannered eccentric who seeks lodging in a respectable London household.  The landlady Mrs. Bonting (Sara Allgood) doesn’t bother to ask for references since Slade is so obviously a gentleman who has paid in advance.  He takes two rooms, a bedroom to live in and an attic room for his “experiments”.  The Bonting’s niece Kitty (Merle Oberon), who sings and dances in a music hall review in Whitehall, is staying with them for the time being.  The big topic of conversation at the Bontings’, as everywhere else in London, are the horrible series of actresses being stabbed and mutilated in Whitehall by the Ripper.

The Lodger

One of the ladies murdered was a has-been music hall performer who once used Kitty’s dressing room.  She visited Kitty immediately prior to the crime and got money from her. This leads Inspector John Warwick (George Sanders) to Kitty’s door.  It is 1944 (or 1902) and they must immediately fall in love.  But Kitty is kind to Slade and he begins to love her too … or is that a homicidal obsession?

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Some might say Cregar goes well over the top but it is the kind of overdone performance that is so compelling as to be almost hypnotic.  There is always a very human sadness behind the histrionics.  Lucien Ballard, Oberon’s husband at the time, makes her look beautiful and the streets of London look superbly eerie.   The score by Hugo Friedhofer is another of the film’s delights.  The story is nothing new but is well worth watching nonetheless.

Trailer (?)

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

The Curse of the Cat People curse_of_cat_people_poster_01
Directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise
Written by DeWitt Bodeen
1944/USA
RKO Radio Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

“He was everything I needed because his entire character had been molded by my deepest wants and desires. He was my rock when I cried, my playmate when I laughed, and my hero when I needed to imagine that one existed for me.” ― Richelle E. Goodrich, Dandelions: The Disappearance of Annabelle Fancher

The bigwigs at RKO decided The Curse of the Cat People would be a dandy title for the sequel to 1942’s hit Cat People. Once again, auteur-producer Val Lewton subverts all expectations by giving us a fantasy about a lonely little girl’s imaginary friend. Not a cat person in sight.

Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) married his secretary Alice (Jane Randolph) after his wife Irena’s suicide in Cat People.  They gave birth to a daughter named Amy (Ann Carter), who is six years old as our story begins. They live in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

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Amy is a dreamy child, who as a result has a hard time making friends with other children. Her father thinks she takes after his first wife instead of her actual mother.  Oliver is trying his best to browbeat Amy into living in the real world.  One day, Amy innocently goes to an infamously “haunted” house and makes the acquaintance of batty old actress Julia Farran.  Julia lives with the obviously disturbed Barbara whom Julia believes is impersonating her dead daughter.

Julia delights in acting out “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the creepiest of ways for the little girl.  She also gives her a ring.  The Reed’s Trinidadian butler Edward (Sir Lancelot) tells Amy it might be a magic ring and how she can make a wish on it.

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Amy’s dearest wish is for a friend.  It is granted in the form of Irena (Simon Simone) dressed as a beautiful princess.  Irena plays with her and treats her tenderly, warning Amy to reveal her presence to no one.  But naturally the child spills the beans, worrying her parents even more.  Things build to a climax when Irena says goodbye and Amy runs out into the night to catch her.

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There are a couple of thrills and a foreboding atmosphere, largely thanks to the beautiful low key cinematography by noir great Nicholas Musuraca, but precious little horror.  The film rests on the shoulders of child actress Ann Carter and fortunately she plays it exactly right.  There is a touching sadness to her Amy.  Simone Simon is appropriately magical. There is some period-type corn on the margins but mostly this is an enchanting film.  Recommended.

This was Robert Wise’s directorial debut.  He took over when director Gunter von Fritsch got seriously behind schedule.

I have not mentioned this before but the films on the DVDs in the Val Lewton Horror Collection all have excellent commentaries.  This one is by film historian and horror guru Greg Mank with brief input from Simone Simon.  Mank considers this film one of Lewton’s most autobiographic works and relates various incidents to the producer’s life.

Clip – Christmas scene

The Suspect (1944)

The SuspectThe Suspect poster
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Written by Bertram Millhauser; adaptation by Arthur T. Horman from a novel by James Roland
1944/USA
Universal Pictures
First viewing/YouTube

Cora Marshall: I’d like to know what goes on in your head.

Philip Marshall:  It’s much better that you shouldn’t, Cora. It might frighten you.

Director Robert Siodmak is batting 1000 in my book.  This film, which features one of Charles Laughton’s better performances, really deserves a proper restoration and release.

The place is Victorian London.  Philip (Laughton) and Cora (Rosalind Ivan) Morrison are a very unhappily married couple.  The story begins as Cora forces their grown son out of the house for failing to help her fix the kitchen sink.  Turns out that the shrewish Cora threw a week’s worth of the son’s work into the fire in revenge first.  Philip, without much fanfare, moves into the son’s bedroom.  But it is impossible to avoid an argument with Cora.

Soon thereafter, Mary (Ella Raines) comes to the tobacco shop that Philip manages to ask for work as a stenographer and typist.  They have none to offer.  When Philip finds Mary crying in a park later that evening, he comforts her and asks her to join him for dinner.  He says he has no one to go home to.  Thereafter, they meet frequently and develop a deep friendship.  Mary sees beyond the unlikely exterior of the much older Philip and begins to fall in love with him.

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Philip asks Cora for a divorce which she refuses, threatening to ruin Philip with his employer if he goes through with it.  Philip says goodbye to Mary but it doesn’t last.  Cora starts tracking his steps and discovers the affair.  After she threatens to ruin Mary’s life as well, Philip can take no more and kills her.  Things are looking up after the coroner’s inquest finds death by accident.  Then a man from Scotland Yard appears and an intricate game of cat and mouse begins, with the unflappable Philip more than holding his own. With Henry Daniell in a wonderful performance as Phillip and Cora’s next door neighbor, an alcoholic “gentleman” rotter.

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Despite seeing it on YouTube in parts in a rather dodgy print, I just loved this one. Laughton is so great.  He is very, very restrained but conveys such emotion in the subtlest of ways.  He easily convinces you that this is the kind of man that a young and beautiful woman, with the requisite sensitivity, could fall in love with.  The story is interesting with some nice twists and turns.  I’m sure that Paul Ivano’s cinematography would look beautiful in a restored version.  Recommended.

Opening ten minutes

Cover Girl (1944)

Cover Girlcover-girl-poster
Directed by Charles Vidor
Written by Virginia Van Upp, Marion Parsonnet, and Paul Gangelin from a story by Erwin S. Gelsey
1944/USA
Columbia Pictures Corporation
First viewing/Netflix rental

Genius: [From the song “Who’s Complaining?” which dealt with food rationing during World War Two] “Because of Axis trickery, my coffee now is chicory, and I can rarely purloin a sirloin… No complaining, through the campaigning. Who cares if the carrots are few? I’ll feed myself on artichokes, until that Nazi party chokes, so long as they don’t ration, my passion, for you!”

With this cast, Cover Girl should have been a much better musical.

Rusty Parker (Rita Hayworth) is dancing in the chorus in a show at the nightclub owned by Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly).  Rusty and Danny are in love.  Editor John Coudair (Otto Krueger) and assistant Cornelia Jackson (Eve Arden) are searching for a “new face” to be the cover girl for a special wedding edition of Vogue magazine.  One of the girls who dances on the line with Rusty decides to try out and Rusty tags along.  The girl manages to sabotage Rusty’s interview.

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But when Coudair goes to the nightclub to see the other girl at work, he spots Rusty and she reminds him so much of his lost love, her grandmother, that he is hooked.  Danny is none too happy at the prospect of Rusty’s opportunity but puts a good face on it.  Then, when Broadway beckons, we get the inevitable conflict over Rusty’s new found fame and her love for Danny.  No fear that love will not win out.  With Phil Silvers as a comedian at the club and pal of Danny and Rusty.

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I love musicals but not this one.  Something seemed so overdone and hokey about all of it. Even the musical numbers didn’t send me.  Kelly can dance, obviously, but the choreography did not capture his magic.  Eve Arden is wonderful as always.  Phil Silvers should stick to his Sgt. Bilko persona and avoid singing.  The one special part was Hayworth and Kelly’s duet to the Oscar-nominated song “Long Ago and Far Away”.  Even these filmmakers could not mess up a Jerome Kern tune.

Cover Girl won the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.  It was nominated in the categories of Best Cinematography, Color; Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Color; Best Sound, Recording; and Best Music, Original Song (“Long Ago and Far Away”, music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Ira Gershwin).

Clip – Kelly, Hayworth and Silvers sing and dance to “Make Way for Tomorrow”

 

 

This Happy Breed (1944)

This Happy Breedthis happy breed poster
Directed by David Lean
Written by Anthony Havlock Allen, David Lean, and Ronald Neame from a play by Noel Coward
1944/UK
Noel Coward-Cineguild/Two Cities Films
First viewing/Amazon Instant Video

 

This happy breed of men, this little world,/ This precious stone set in the silver sea,/ Which serves it in the office of a wall,/ Or as a moat defensive to a house,/ Against the envy of less happier lands,/ This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.  — Shakespeare, Richard II

This is the episodic story of two neighboring middle-class London families between the World Wars. The film, which combines a survey of modern British history with some domestic melodrama, is highlighted by outstanding acting and, while long, is quite enjoyable.

The story begins in 1919 as the Gilmore family moves into a London row house.  They are father Frank (Robert Newton), a WWI veteran, and mother Ethel (Celia Johnson).  The children are daughters Violet and Queenie (Kay Walsh).  Vi is quiet and helpful and Queenie is a chronically dissatisfied excitement seeker.  The youngest is a son, the impressionable Reg.  Ethel’s mother, a natural born pessimist with a sharp tongue, and her eccentric, ailing Aunt Sylvia complete the household.  The two ladies bicker constantly.

While the parents are moving in, next door neighbor Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway) comes over an offers his assistance.  We never see his wife, who always seems to be confined to bed for one reason or another.  He and his son Billy (John Mills) will have a prominent part in the plot.  Frank and Bob immediately recognize each other from their army days in France and become fast friends.

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The story follows the families through triumph and tragedy.  Billy falls deeply in love with Queenie, who loves him too but cannot see leading her mother’s life, which she considers “common” and boring.  He goes off to join the navy, never losing his love for her.  She eventually runs away with a married man, causing her mother to disown her.  The other two children find love and marry.

The history survey includes strikes, communist agitation, the death of George V and abdication of Edward VIII, the rise of Hitler and the British Nazi Party, and appeasement among other things, all as seen through the eyes of the families.  As the story moves into the thirties, the folly of disarmament becomes a theme.

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matte paintings used in the film

This has quite a few similarities in theme to 1933’s Best Picture winner Cavalcade but deals with a working class family and is a better film.  Newton and Johnson are absolutely fantastic.  Robert Newton is certainly a chameleon. Can this really be the man that played Bill Sykes in Lean’s Oliver Twist?  Celia Johnson is required to act every possible emotion in the course of the story and does so beautifully and with remarkable subtlety.  The film also is further evidence at the British genius at creating realistic settings out of thin air in time of war.  While most of the story is filmed in interiors, the color is good as well.  It’s a long film but it managed to keep my interest throughout.  Recommended.

After assisting Coward in directing In Which We Serve, David Lean took solo directing honors for the first time in This Happy Breed.

Trailer

 

The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvitedthe-uninvited-822413l
Directed by Lewis Allen
Written by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos from the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle
1944/USA
Paramount Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Roderick Fitzgerald: [narration] They call them the haunted shores, these stretches of Devonshire and Cornwall and Ireland which rear up against the westward ocean. Mists gather here… and sea fog… and eerie stories…

There are strong echoes of Rebecca in this ghost story.  And real live ghosts!  It falls short of the Hitchcock but still very watchable, especially for its beautiful cinematography.

Brother and sister Roderick (Ray Milland) and Pamela (Ruth Hussey) Fitzgerald are on holiday in Cornwall.  One day they come across an abandoned old mansion and Pamela falls in love with it.  They decide to pool all their money and make an offer to buy it.  They hear it is for sale by Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) and go to his home.  The Commander is not at home and his granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell) tells them the house is not for sale.  Fortunately or not, the Commander returns in the nick of time and is willing to sell for a suspiciously low price …  The siblings jump at it.

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Roderick is of course smitten with the beautiful young Stella and starts to make friends. Then he takes off for London for three weeks.  While he is gone, it becomes clear to Pamela that the house is haunted.  There are moans in the night and the studio is unearthly cold and depressing.  When Roderick returns, Stella defies her grandfather’s strict prohibition against entering the house and accepts an invitation to dinner.  Immediately she feels the presence of her mother, who died under mysterious circumstances when she was just a toddler. Unfortunately some diabolical force also impels Stella to the edge of the cliff where her mother fell to her death.  She would have gone over if Roderick had not been there to stop her.

We hear a lot about the beauty and charm of Stella’s mother, Mary Merideth,  especially from the mother’s live-in nurse Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) who idolized her.  We also learn various versions of the tragic tale of the love triangle between Mary, Stella’s father, and his artist’s model Carmel.  Then Stella falls into a catatonic trance when the Fitzgerald’s decide to try a fake seance to get Stella’s “mother’ to warn her away from the house.  Things take an even creepier turn when the grandfather sends Stella to Miss Holloway’s rest home for a cure …

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Veteran cinematographer Charles Lang certainly pulled out all the stops to achieve the deep shadows which give this film such a wonderful atmosphere.  The restoration on the Criterion Collection DVD is beautiful.  The story is also interesting, although the tone is somehow kept too light to be truly horrifying.  I enjoyed it quite a bit nevertheless.

Charles Lang was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White for his work on The Uninvited.  The score by Victor Young has as its main theme the beautiful melody, later put to words as the song “Stella by Starlight”.  I am surprised it was not nominated.

Trailer

It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

It Happened Tomorrowit-happened-tomorrow-movie-poster-1944-1020482407
Directed by René Clair
Written by Dudley Nichols and René Clair from multiple sources
1944/USA
Arnold Pressburger Films
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

“Before you leave, the fortune teller reminds you that the future is never set in stone.” ― Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

I was sold on this movie before I watched it by its cast list.  How can you really go wrong with Dick Powell, Linda Darnell, and Jack Oakie?

Larry Stevens (Powell) has just been promoted to reporter from his stint on the obituary desk at an evening newspaper.  While he is celebrating with his pals in the newsroom they get to talking about time.  An old-timer says that time is an illusion and that the future exists now.  Stevens speculates about how great it would be to predict tomorrow’s news.  The old-timer says he should be careful what he wishes for.

After they leave the office, the boys happen upon a nightclub where Cigolini (Oakie) is putting on a mind-reading act.  His medium is the beautiful Sylvia (Darnell), who in real life happens to be his niece.  Stevens immediately starts chatting her up despite the fact that she is supposedly in a trance.  Late that night, the old man gives Stevens a newspaper.

Stevens doesn’t open his paper until breakfast when a friend borrows it to look at the want ads. It turns out that it is the paper that will be published that evening.  The paper accurately predicts several events and Stevens parlays that into a raise and promotion. He spends his free time courting Sylvia and they are rapidly in love.  But his newfound skill at prediction lands him in jail.  The old guy keeps coming around with more papers, all the time issuing warnings.  Finally, one bears a headline announcing Stevens’s own death in a shootout.  I’ll stop here but it is worth noting that this is a comedy.

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This is a fun little movie and Powell, Darnell and Oakie certainly do not disappoint.  I think I like Darnell better every time I see her on screen.  There’s something so down-to-earth and humorous under all that beauty.

It Happened Tomorrow was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound, Recording and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.

Clip