Blithe Spirit (1945)

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Directed by David Lean
Adapted for the screen by David Lean, Ronald Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allen from a play by Noel Coward
1945/UK
Two Cities Films/Noel Coward-Cineguild
Repeat viewing/Amazon Instant

Madame Arcati: Time is the reef upon which all our frail mystic ships are wrecked.

I always feel like I should enjoy this more than I actually do. If Margaret Rutherford could be in every scene perhaps I would.

Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) is a successful mystery writer.  He lost his first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond) several years ago and is now married to Ruth (Constance Cummings).  Charles is writing a new book with a fake medium and decides to host a seance for research purposes.  He does not count on the medium he gets, the eccentric, earnest, no-nonsense Madame Acarti (Rutherford).

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Somehow, Madame Arcarti manages to summon Elvira from the other side.  Elvira and Ruth are natural antagonists, Charles is stuck in the middle, and Arcarti can’t seem to put the genii back in the bottle.

Blithe Spirit (1945)

Lean’s forte was certainly not comedy and Coward was notoriously unhappy about the way his smash hit stage play turned out on screen.  Where the dialogue should sparkle it just kind of fizzles, despite the expert delivery of the actors.  Margaret Rutherford must have directed herself (it probably helped that she had played the part on stage) and breathes life into the movie each time she appears.  It is almost worth seeing just to catch her performance.

Blithe Spirit won the Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects.

Original Trailer

They Were Expendable (1945)

they_were_expendableThey Were Expendable
Directed by John Ford
Written by Frank Wead from the book by William L. White
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

UNDER the wide and starry sky / Dig the grave and let me lie: / Glad did I live and gladly die, / And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you ‘grave for me: / Here he lies where he long’d to be; / Home is the sailor, home from the sea, / And the hunter home from the hill.

— “Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson, recited by John Wayne in the film

Well, this went immediately onto my nonexistent lists of Top 5 John Ford Films and Top 5 Combat Films.

This is the story of a Navy squadron of PT (patrol torpedo) boats left to fight and survive in the Philippines after the Japanese invasion.  As the film begins, sailors at Subic Bay are celebrating the retirement of a 30-year colleague.  Lt. Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) feels like he has taken himself out of the running for advancement by sticking with buddy Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and his faith in the PT boat for combat.  Rusty is busy filling out the papers for transfer to a destroyer when the announcement of Pearl Harbor is made.  He unhesitatingly reports for duty with his friend.

Trouble is no one in the Navy has any respect for the PT boats either.  When things get a bit more organized they are singled out for delivering messages.  Then the dire situation in the Philippines presses every available asset into combat.  The maneuverable PT boats prove themselves effective in sinking much larger vessels.  Unfortunately, outnumbered and ill-supplied, they usually come back to port at least one boat short.

They Were Expendable (1945)Eventually the squadron is evacuated to Bataan and Rusty is sent to Corregidor for treatment for blood poisoning.  In the hospital, he meets and falls in love with nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed).  She volunteers for transfer to Bataan to be near him.  But Rusty, Brickley, and the crew of one boat are soon off to ferry honchos to Mindanao, leaving most of their comrades and Sandy behind on Bataan.  As the situation deteriorates more painful goodbyes follow.

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This film is exquisitely composed and shot.  As usual, Ford does best with the wordless moments: the Filipina singing “My Country Tis of Thee” to the emptying bar after the attack on Pearl Harbor; Donna Reed’s brave face as she assists at an operation by flashlight; Wayne putting his arm around Montgomery at the end.  There is some corn and propaganda, but large swathes of this are almost unbearably poignant.  The themes of the film are duty; honor; stoicism; and sacrifice.  Particularly sacrifice.  We can only imagine the fates that awaited those that were left behind as our heroes moved on to greater glory.  Ford does not enlighten us.  This is a fairly bleak effort probably made bearable only because it was made after victory in the Pacific was assured.

John Wayne and Donna Reed may never have been better.  I really should watch this again sometime soon and see if my first impression holds up.  Highly recommended.

They Were Expendable was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound, Recording and Best Effects, Special Effects.

Trailer

A Walk in the Sun (1945)

A Walk in the Sunaffiche-Le-Commando-de-la-mort-A-Walk-in-the-Sun-1945-2
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Written by Harry Brown and Robert Rossen
1945/USA
Lewis Milestone Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

 

Rivera: It could’ve been something else. It could’ve been the engineers or the tanks. It could even have been the Navy. They looked at me and said, “Here’s a guy that can walk.” They finished me, all right.

Friedman: Everybody walks. Even monkeys.

Lewis Milestone brought this rather stylized combat film as close to an anti-war picture as he could have given its year.

A platoon of American GIs lands on the beach at Salerno.  Before it gets a chance to do so, its lieutenant is killed.  The senior NCO soon follows, leaving some rather green sergeants (Dana Andrews, Lloyd Bridges, Herbert Rudley) to pick up the slack.  After fighting their way up the beachhead, the men learn that their mission is to take a farmhouse about six miles inland and to blow up a nearby bridge.

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We are privy to all the grousing and fatalistic banter of the enlisted men as they tortuously make progress toward their destination.  When the platoon arrives, it is already short of ammunition and inspiration but determined to carry on.  With Richard Conte in a fantastic performance as a smart-ass cigarette-cadging machine gunner, and John Ireland, Sterling Holloway, Norman Lloyd, and Huntz Hall among the other grunts.

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The dialogue in this one is quite literary and rhythmic, yet somehow very effective in conveying the interior monologues of the men.  We get the phrases “nobody dies” and “you kill me” over and over like a kind of Greek chorus.  And the performances are all right on.  Even though it is so stagey,  one gets the feeling that this is the essence of what combat was like – ordinary guys just trying to do their job by the seat of their pants and somehow come out of it alive.  Recommended.

Trailer

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

I Know Where I’m Going!i_know_where_im_going
Written and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
1945/UK
The Archers
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#188 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Joan Webster: People around here are very poor I suppose.

Torquil MacNeil: Not poor, they just haven’t got money.

I think that there is room in movies for clueless heroes and heroines who are redeemed by love. This romance has some of the greatest scenery ever and a kind of magical aura that I find irresistible.

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), daughter of a middle-class banker, is pretty and smart and has always gotten her own way.  She has her eyes on the prize at all times and that prize is a life with the monied elite.  As the story begins, she announces to her father that she will wed Consolidated Chemical Industries the next day.  She ignores her father’s objections that its principal, the actual bridegroom, is as old as he.  She is thrilled with the customized itinerary that will take her to the island in the Western Hebrides that her fiance, a Lord, has leased for the duration of the war.

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All goes well until she reaches the port where a launch from the island is to meet her. There, as is common, the weather deteriorates to the point where it looks likely that there will be no passage out for several days.  The locals extend a hospitable welcome but Joan does not understand the land poor real Scottish aristocracy or why she cannot simply buy her way to her destination.  Furthermore, she is developing a dangerous attraction to the real laird of the island Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey).  Something in the air of the surroundings is also being to instill pixie dust into her dreams.  The threat that this may divert her from her life-long ambition leads her to take dangerous risks for herself and others in order to escape.

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Some people find Wendy Hiller’s character to be unsympathetic.  I contend that it is the unsympathetic that need to be rescued from their predicament.  The fact is that Joan, in fact, has no idea where her heart wants to go and the film provides a place for it to rest. The very ending where Livesey reads the “curse” had tears in my eyes yet again.  And I think no one could fail to see the beauty of Erwin Hiller’s gorgeous cinematography or the Scottish music.

As I started out on my journey through films I was kind of a Powell and Pressburger agnostic.  As I age and revisit their work I find myself becoming an enthusiast.

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2014 in Review:10 Top Favorite New-to-Me Films

It was kind of amazing to look back at all the good “new” movies I saw this year.  It made me more grateful for this blog and the friends I have made because of it.

My viewing for 2014 covered the years 1939 to 1945. I also viewed 66 films noir during Noir Month in July and watched other films as part of my membership in the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die Blog Club. I stopped counting films sometime during the year. My letterboxd account shows I’ll have around 200 movies between September 15 and the end of the year so I guess I saw something like 500, taking into account several movieless trips.

I’m not much for rankings since my memory plays tricks on me, but as of today here is the list, in reverse order, of my favorite ten of the films I saw for the first time in 2014.

10.  Side Street (1950, directed by Anthony Mann

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9.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945, directed by Elia Kazan)

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8.  In Which We Serve (1942, directed by Noel Coward and David Lean)

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7.  Into the Wild (2007, directed by Sean Penn)

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6.  Gaslight (1940, directed by Thorold Dickinson)

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5.  The Children Are Watching Us (1944, directed by Vittorio de Sica)

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4.  A Canterbury Tale (1944, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

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3.  The Prowler (1951, directed by Joseph Losey)

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2.  Act of Violence (1948, directed by Fred Zinnemann)

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1. Jammin’ the Blues (1944, directed by Gjon Mili) – I watched many films I rated 10 out of 10 stars in 2014, but this was the only one I was seeing for the first time.  Those interested are in luck!  It is only 10 minutes long and available on YouTube.

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A list of my 50 top new-to-me favorites is available here.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogneles dames poster
Directed by Robert Bresson
Written by Robert Bresson; additional dialogue by Jean Cocteau; story by Denis Diderot
1945/France
Les Films Raoul Ploquin
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

 

Agnès: We’re unlucky. Every time we meet alone, it’s raining.

I’ve seen this before but remembered exactly nothing about it even while I was rewatching. Not a good sign. This is beautifully shot and acted but I just could not wrap my head around some of the character motivations.

Helene (Maria Casares), a wealthy socialite, is head-over-heels for long-time lover Jean (Paul Bernard).  When a friend tells her Jean’s ardor seems to be cooling, she denies it but decides to check things out.  She makes the first move and tells him that the thrill is gone for her.  To her dismay, Paul is greatly relieved to hear this and says he feels the same. They vow to continue their friendship.  Silently, Helene plots revenge.

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She begins by meeting a widowed former neighbor Mme. D, who has fallen on hard times.  Her daughter Agnes, trained as a ballet dancer, is now making ends meet by working in a cabaret.  The degradation of her low occupation has led to her notoriety as a loose woman.  Helene offers to provide Mme. D and her daughter with a home and to pay for their expenses.  Her only wish is that they keep to themselves for three years so the world can forget Agnes’s  perfidy.  For some reason, they go along.

Simultaneously, Helene arranges an “chance” meeting between Jean and Agnes.  She then puts up all kinds of barriers between the two.  She has correctly assessed that Jean likes them hard to get and her revenge plan looks like it will be a screaming success.

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Casares, whom I recently enjoyed in Children of Paradise, is exceptional here.  She has to do a lot of saying one thing while feeling another and is excellent at letting the emotions play across her face in a subtle and believable way.  Everybody else is fine and Bresson obviously knows how to tell a story.  But all along, Helene’s strategy just seemed like it should be super-obvious to all concerned.  In addition, being kept essentially in jail seemed to be a high price to pay for financial support especially while Agnes could make an adequate living as a dancer.

Clip – unfortunately I can’t find anything with subtitles

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

The Thin Man Goes Homethin man goes home poster
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Written by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor based on an original story by Riskin and Harry Kurnitz and characters created by Dashiell Hammett
1945/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
First viewing/Netflix rental

Brogan: Well, cut off my legs and call me Shorty.

Loy and Powell, together or apart, cannot help but be enjoyable. I thought this was one of the weaker entries in the Thin Man franchise, however. Luckily, with Thin Man movies, “weaker” sill means highly entertaining!

Nick (Powell)  and Nora (Loy) visit Nick’s family in small-town upstate New York. To prepare himself, Nick has taken to drinking cider in place of his customary martinis because his father disapproves (also there was wartime rationing at the time this was made).  Actually, Nick’s father (Harry Davenport) disapproves in general but this mostly masks his disappointment that Nick decided to pursue a career with the police rather than follow the old man’s footsteps into the medical profession.  Nora is determined to make the father give Nick a pat on the back, predicting that NIck will burst his buttons in pride when he does so.  If this means digging up a crime for Nick to solve, well Nora is always game.

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At any rate, a crime drops in Nick’s lap.  A local artist is murdered on his parents’ doorstep.  Unwittingly, Nora has purchased one of his paintings for Nick’s birthday.  What is the secret hidden in the paintings and which of the many suspects did the deed and the other murders in its wake?  With Lucille Watson as Nick’s mother and Ann Revere as “Crazy Mary”.

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This is solid but somehow lacks the sparkle of previous entries.  There are not so many double entendres or drinking jokes for one thing.  For another, longtime series director W.S. Van Dyke died and this was helmed by a replacement.  I enjoyed it a lot but had a hard time getting worked up about the mystery story, which I thought fairly convoluted. And unless I missed something, Nick and Nora seem to have lost son Nick, Jr. somewhere along the line.

Trailer

The Body Snatcher (1945)

The Body Snatcherthe-body-snatcher-955779l
Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Philip MacDonald and “Carlos Keith” (Val Lewton) from a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson
1945/USA
RKO Radio Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Cabman John Gray: I am a small man, a humble man. Being poor I have had to do much that I did not want to do. But so long as the great Dr McFarlane comes to my whistle, that long am I a man. If I have not that then I have nothing. Then I am only a cabman and a grave robber. You’ll never get rid of me, Toddy.

A Val Lewton production lives up to its title! Also contains one of Boris Karloff’s greatest performances and his last outing with Bela Lugosi.

Respected Ediinburgh medical professor Dr. “Toddy” McFarlane (Henry Daniell) has a guilty secret and cabman John Gray (Karloff) knows it.  Seems the good doctor was an accomplice in the infamous murder spree in which Burke and Hare killed to obtain cadavers to sell to a certain Dr. Knox.  McFarlane is up against the same pressures as Knox was.  The law just does not permit the use of human bodies for education purposes and medicine has progressed to the point where training is impossible without them.  So McFarlane is dependent on Gray’s skills as a grave robber.

McFarlane takes Dr. Fettes as his assistant.  The young man is an idealist but recognizes the need for the cadavers so turns a blind eye to the grave robberies.  But that source is drying up as the community starts employing night guards at its cemeteries.  Fettes takes a medical interest on a little girl who is paralyzed and a more personal interest in her mother.  They beg McFarlane to operate on her.  McFarlane is completely unwilling but some “persuasion” from Gray works wonders.  He does, however, need a cadaver to practice on.

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Gray is quick to supply one.  The game has escalated to murder once again.  Now Gray has additional ammunition against the ever more hostile McFarlane.  Either one or the other must prevail.  Or is that really possible?  With Lugosi in a small role as McFarlane’s servant who attempts to blackmail Gray.

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At this point, RKO had acquired a new executive producer, Jack J. Gross, who started to take a more hands on approach to Lewton’s work.  He wanted the horror films to be more overt and insisted that Lewton employ Karloff and Lugosi to enhance their appeal. Although Lewton balked, he ended up warming completely to Karloff and creating a part for Lugosi.  The interference from Gross did not prevent him from making a very solid film with the assistance of fledgling director Robert Wise.

Both Daniell and Karloff are at the very peak of their games here.  Was there ever an actor with a chill like that of Daniel?  Karloff is full of menace while retaining a basic humanity. Lugosi was in great pain from stomach ulcers and had just commenced his descent into morphine addiction but is effective in the main scene he has.  This low-budget “B” picture looks like a million dollars thanks to the beautiful cinematography by Robert De Grasse and Lewton’s genius at borrowing scenery and costumes from the studio’s previous big-budget productions.

Most of my information comes from the DVD commentary by Robert Wise with film historian Steve Haberman.

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The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

The Bells of St. Mary’sbell-of-st-marys-1
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Dudley Nichols from a story by Leo McCarey
1945/USA
Rainbow Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix Instant

 

Mrs. Breen: I can see you don’t know what it means to be up to your neck in nuns.

I seem to be building up some Christmas-themed viewing without even trying. My favorite part of this movie is the first-grader’s Christmas pageant. I have some serious bones to pick with the last 15 minutes of the film however.

Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) is transferred to be pastor of the parish of St. Mary’s, which also runs a parochial school.  His secret mission is to determine whether the school, which is in ill-repair, should be closed.  The group of nuns that runs the school is headed by world’s youngest Mother Superior, Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman).  She and her colleagues pray daily that God will give a modern building in construction on the other side of the playground to them.  The building’s owner Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers) is having none of it and, in fact, wants the nuns to sell the school property to him.  If not, he has the clout to have the school condemned.

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The other running subplot concerns a boarding student named Patsy, whose single mother put her in the school so as not to further expose her to her “bad” lifestyle (she might be a singer in a club or something wicked, never stated).  Patsy has many inner troubles that finally cause her to fail her final exams.  The one big disagreement between Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict is whether Patsy should be allowed to pass and graduate despite her failing grades.  The priest’s attitude is that the school is there to help the students and, of course, Patsy should graduate with the rest of her class.

Everyday incidents in the life of the school, many of them amusing, are peppered throughout.  The resolution of the above plot threads should not be in any doubt. However if you have not seen the film, you might want to stop reading here.

SPOILER ALERT:  Late in the picture, Sister Benedict is discovered to have a mild case of tuberculosis.  The doctor says that it is vital that she not be told about this but simply transferred to duties in an old-age home or infirmary(!) in a dry climate.  Evidently, knowing you have TB is worse for your morale and healing than being stripped of your position and calling as an educator without any explanation.  Also, did they not know TB was contagious?  I’m sure they did.  It’s really a brilliant idea to send somebody to work with elderly or already ill people not knowing s/he has a contagious disease, no?  Ditto, for allowing her to continue working with the children at the school until she departs.  This part of the story drives me nuts.

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While basically tolerable entertainment, this film does not measure up to the heights of the earlier Going My Way in terms of plot or music.  There are some good scenes that show McCarey’s talent for working with actors, though, and I do absolutely love that pageant.

The Bells of St. Mary’s won the Oscar for Best Sound, Recording.  It was nominated in the categories of:  Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Original Song (Jimmy Van Husen and Johnny Burke, “Aren’t You Glad You’re You”); and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.

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