Sitting Pretty (1948)

Sitting Prettysitting pretty poster
Directed by Walter Lang
Written by F. Hugh Herbert from a novel by Gwen Davenport
1948/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
First viewing/Amazon Instant

 

Tacey King: Mr. Belvedere, is there anything you haven’t been? Lynn Belvedere: Yes, Mrs. King – I’ve never been an idler or a parasite.

I would watch Clifton Webb in anything.  He is hilarious here.

Lawyer Harry King (Robert Young) and his wife Tacey (Maureen O’Hara) have three rambunctious boys under age 8.  The youngest is about two.  One fine day, the kids become too much for the housekeeper and she walks out.

Tacey places an ad for a live-in babysitter and is delighted when Lynn Belvedere responds.  She seems perfect for the job and Tacey hires her via letter and telegram.  The couple is flabbergasted to discover that Lynn (Webb) is a man.  Not that anyone would ever dare call him anything but Mr. Belvedere.

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Mr. Belvedere announces at the outset that he hates children but is fully competent to care for them.  He has accepted the job in order to have a place to stay while he practices his profession.  When asked what his profession is, he can only respond “I am a genius.” He is also a vegetarian that practices yoga headstands in his room and expects breakfast at seven.

To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Belvedere proves to be a jewel.  Despite his brand of stern discipline the children all love him.  It seems that he is an expert in everything from fixing the refrigerator to first aid.  There is a story that has something to do with the town gossip spreading rumors about Belvedere and Tacey but the fun of the movie is mostly watching Mr. Belvedere do his thing.  With Richard Haydn as the nosy neighbor and Ed Begley as Harry’s boss.

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Without Clifton Webb, this movie would look a lot like a 50’s TV sitcom along the lines of “Father Knows Best”.  But Webb brings such a deadpan conviction to his role that I could not help but laugh out loud repeatedly.  His lines are all endlessly quotable.  Recommended.

Clifton Webb was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Sitting Pretty.

Germany Year Zero (1948)

Germany Year Zero220px-Germania,_anno_zero_poster
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Written by Roberto Rossellini, Carlo Lizzani, Max Kolpé, and Sergio Amidei
1948/Italy/France/Germany
Tevere Film/SAFDI/Union Generale Cinematographique/Deutsche Film
First viewing/Netflix rental

Narrator: This movie, shot in Berlin in the summer of 1947, aims only to be an objective and true portrait of this large, almost totally destroyed city where 3.5 million people live a terrible, desperate life, almost without realizing it. They live as if tragedy were natural, not because of strength or faith, but because they are tired. This is not an accusation or even a defense of the German people. It is an objective assessment. Yet if anyone, after watching Edmund Koeler’s story, feels that something needs to be done-that German children need to relearn to love life-then the efforts of those who made this movie will be greatly rewarded.

Years of fascism and deprivation have corrupted an entire people to the point where its youth are completely lost. The concluding film in Rossellini’s war trilogy is even sadder than the others.

Twelve-year-old Edmund has the weight of the world on his shoulders.  His family of four is living on three ration cards.  His able-bodied elder brother is unregistered and in hiding because he fears being sent to a POW camp for having “fought until the end”.  Edmund’s elder sister unenthusiastically trolls for cash from the occupying forces in nightclubs in the evenings.  Mother is dead and father is bedridden.

So Edmund soldiers on all day every day.  He lies about his age to get odd jobs, makes black market deals, and fights to get the lumps of coal that fall off trucks.  Finally, he meets a former schoolteacher who gets him a more lucrative smuggling job.  This man is an unreconstructed True Believer whose interest in the boy evidently goes beyond the professional judging from the number of times he tousles his hair.

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Then the father’s condition deteriorates still further.  Luckily he is admitted to a hospital where the food looks like a gourmet paradise and rapidly restores him. No one knows how the family will manage to care for him when he returns home.

Edmund seeks out his teacher for advice.  The kind he gets leads to the shocking conclusion of the story.

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Obviously, this movie is not a walk in the park.  In addition, some of the neo-realist amateur acting is somewhat wooden.  Nonetheless, the film offers an incredible view of post-war Berlin and a profound message about the moral bankruptcy of an exhausted people.  It is at least the equal of the other two films in the trilogy, Rome, Open City and Paisan.

Clip – dubbed in Italian.  I saw the German language version.

Directed by John Ford (1971)

Directed by John Ford Directed by Ford poster
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Written by Peter Bogdanovich
1971 (restored and updated 2006)/USA
American Film Institute/California Arts Commission/Turner Classic Movies (2006 Restoration)
First viewing/American Documentary Film Festival

I prefer the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford. — Orson Welles

The American Documentary Film Festival near us was having a retrospective of documentaries by Peter Bogdanovich and my husband and I caught this one.  I enjoyed it immensely.

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The documentary was restored and updated in 2006 to include contemporary interviews with directors influenced by Ford, including Scorcese, Speilberg, and Eastwood. The reminiscences of actors such as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Harry Carey, Jr., and Maureen O’Hara were even better.  What a cranky, difficult character Ford was!  But everyone seemed to have loved him in the end.

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Watching as Ethan Edwards returns from the war – The Searchers (1956)

Better than all the talking heads, however, were the wonderful clips.  It was so awesome to see them on the big screen.  Now my mouth is watering for a rewatch of Fort Apache which is coming up soon.

This is available on DVD and is highly recommended.

Bogdanovich interview of Ford – a classic!

 

La Terra Trema (1948)

La Terra Trema (“The Earth Trembles”)la_terra_trema
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Written by Antonio Petrangeli, Giovanni Verga, and Luchino Visconti
1948/Italy
Universalia Film
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

 

Title Card: [in Italian] In Sicily, Italian is not the language of the poor.

Despite the gorgeous visuals, enjoying this film requires a higher tolerance for tragedy than I have.

The setting is Aci Tressa, a dirt poor Sicilian village, where fishermen spend endless hours at sea in all weathers only to earn a pittance from the local merchants for their catch.  Most of the young people in town are too poor to start their own families.  The younger fisherman are chaffing at the bit  but it is the elders that negotiate the price of fish. Finally, the young men rebel and insist that they take over the job.  The only result is a kind of riot as the merchants resist.

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‘Ntoni Valastro, against the advice of his grandfather, decides to buy his own boat and mortgages the family house to do so.  All the brothers work in the new business.  At first, all goes extremely well.  It looks like a huge anchovy harvest might earn the family enough to pay off the debt.  ‘Ntoni works like a mad man to reach his dream.  Then one stormy day, ignoring all warnings, he decides to risk the weather to go out to fish.

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The brothers emerge with little more than their lives.  The boat is wrecked and all the equipment is lost.  The fishing boat owners and merchants refuse to hire any of the brothers in retaliation for their rebellion.  Things go from bad to worse as the family loses everything and slowly disintegrates.

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The film is firmly in the neo-realist tradition.  It was filmed on location, in the Sicilian dialect, and without dubbing.  All the parts are played by amateur actors.  As usual with these things, the performances are of wildly different levels of believability.  On the other hand, they do lend the film a documentary-like quality.

The film was partially financed by the Communist Party and starts out looking like it will be a tale of proletarian struggle against a capitalist system of exploitation.  I could have lived with that.  However, the message I came away with was that any such struggle was completely hopeless.  Furthermore, almost every character is unpleasant.  The merchants are, of course, the worst, but the fishermen and their families are no prizes either.  It was really hard to sit through two hours and forty minutes of bad news.

None of this takes away from the exquisite compositions achieved by Visconti in La Terra Trema.  It is truly gorgeous.

Montage of clips from the film set to music by Phillip Wilcher – print quality on DVD was much better

Red River (1948)

Red RiverRed River poster
Directed by Howard Hawks and Arthur Rossen
Written by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from a story by Chase
1948/USA
Charles K. Feldman Group/Monterey Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#217 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Sims Reeves: Plantin’ and readin’, plantin’ and readin’. Fill a man full o’ lead, stick him in the ground an’ then read words on him. Why, when you’ve killed a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?

I find this to be two-thirds iconic cattle drive/man vs. nature Western and one-third highly irritating romance.

Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a tough-as-nails Indian scout.  He departs the wagon train he has been protecting to search for cattle land and leaves his sweetheart (Colleen Grey) behind.  She is almost immediately killed in an Indian attack and he becomes tougher still.

Eventually, Dunson and sidekick Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) find promising ranch land near the Rio Grande.  Although this is a Mexican land grant estate, Dunson lays claim to it by killing the owner’s agent and challenging all comers to try and oust him.  Soon after, Matt Garth, an equally tough boy who has been orphaned in another Indian attack, turns up.  Dunson basically adopts him.

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Segue to 14 years later and Matt (Montgomery Clift) has returned from service in the Civil War.  Dunson has amassed a huge herd of cattle but there is no market whatever for them in the South.  He has decided to attempt what has never been done before and make the 1,000 mile journey to a railroad crossing in Missouri.  Matt helps him recruit cowboys for the job.  Dunson announces to all that there will be no pay unless the cattle drive is successful and that they are signed up for the duration.

The journey is fraught with danger, a stampede, and bad weather.  Dunson becomes increasingly obsessed and deranged, a la Captain Ahab in Moby Dick or Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty.  As the supplies run out and the men tire, he ruthlessly makes examples of all who even suggest quitting.  Dunson tries his execution tactics once too often and Matt feels he has no choice but to commandeer the cattle and men and change course for a closer destination in Kansas where he is convinced he will find another rail head.  Dunson vows to murder Matt for his mutiny.

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On the way to Kansas, Matt runs across a traveling troupe of city clickers (AKA slickers).  While enjoying their hospitality, the party is attacked by Indians.  Matt and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) fall in love by sparring during the battle.  He tells her about his history with Dunson.  The men then continue their drive toward Kansas.

Dunson is not far behind, on Matt’s trail with a posse of killers.  Tess is unable to talk him out of his murderous intent but does convince him to take her with him.  Everyone meets up for a final show-down in Kansas.  With John Ireland as Matt’s friend and rival, Harry Carey Sr. as a cattle buyer, and Harry Carey Jr. as a doomed cowpoke.

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I think this is one of the best Westerns ever made right up until Joanne Dru’s character enters the picture.  I don’t know whether it’s the actress or her dialogue but I find her incredibly annoying with all her instant character analysis and pronouncements.  The ending sequence also verges on the farcical, destroying the somber tone established earlier in the story.  That said, this is well worth seeing before you die if only for the fantastic vistas of cattle on the wide open plains.

Red River was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Writing, Motion Picture Story and Best Film Editing.

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The Fallen Idol (1948)

The Fallen Idolfallen idol poster
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by Graham Greene from a story by Greene
1948/UK
London Film Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

 

Phillipe: We’ve got to think of lies and tell them all the time. And then they won’t find out the truth.

It is folly to ask a child to keep secrets. I really love this movie and Ralph Richardson’s performance in it.

Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) is the son of the Ambassador of an unnamed foreign country (evidentally France) and lives in his London residence.  As the film opens, the father is off to fetch Phillipe’s mother home from the hospital where she has been recovering for the last eight months.  In the absence of his mother, Phillipe has formed a close friendship with the butler Mr. Baines (Ralph Richardson).  Philippe is left in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Baines over the weekend while the Ambassador and all of the staff are away.

Mr. Baines loves to tell the boy fables of his adventures in Africa, take him on walks, and otherwise conspire with him.  Mrs. Bates is another story.  She is a haridan who can do nothing but scold and complain about her charge.  She is especially ruthless about his harmless pet snake McGregor.

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Mr. Baines promises to take Phillipe for a walk but Mrs. Baines forbids this.  Phillipe sneaks out of the house and finds Mr. Baines in a tea shop having a tearful conversation with a young woman, Julie (Michele Morgan).  They are having an intense talk about how her “friend” has decided to leave her married lover but Mr. Baines does not think the “friend” should do this.  Mr. Baines allows Philippe to believe that Julie is his niece and asks him to keep the meeting secret from Mrs. Baines who “does not like Julie”.

That same day, Philipe overhears Mr. Baines asking Mrs. Baines for his freedom.  She reacts very badly.  Later on, Philipe lets slip that there was another person in the teashop with him and Baines and blurts out the story, insofar as he understands it.  Mrs. Baines asks Philippe not to tell Baines she knows anything about this.  She tells Baines she is going to visit her aunt for the weekend and departs.

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Baines and Julie spend the next day together.  They take Philippe to the zoo and after a picnic dinner play “hide and seek in the dark”.  But the truly scary Mrs. Baines is hiding in the shadows the whole time. And thus Baines’s secrets come back to haunt him.

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This is a classic Graham Greene morality play and brimming with delicious irony.  The little boy is so honest he believes everything he is told.  That, combined with his blind admiration of the butler and the secrets entrusted to him, corrupt him to the point where he becomes an only too willing accomplice in deceit and almost brings about the downfall of all concerned.

Richardson is superb.  He is so believable as a basically kind but flawed human.  I think Reed did a good job with his child actor, who was reportedly so distracted during shooting that his performance had to be pieced together in the editing room.  Highly recommended.

The Fallen Idol was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay.

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Oliver Twist

Oliver TwistPoster - Oliver Twist (1948)_01
Directed by David Lean
Written by David Lean and Stanley Haynes from the novel by Charles Dickens
1947/UK
Cineguild
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

Oliver Twist: Please Sir, I want some more.

It was hard to pick the stills for this film.  They are all so beautiful.  So is the film.

The story is the old one.  Little Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) is born in the parish workhouse on a dark and stormy night to a mother who wears no wedding ring.  An old lady in attendance takes a locket from the mother’s poor dead body and pawns it.  Oliver is raised by the parish in the kind of orphanage that gave the word Dickensian its meaning.  Then the little mite is sent to work picking okum in a workhouse.  When he has the temerity to ask for an additional bowl of gruel at supper, the Beadle Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan) rapidly sells him to the highest bidder for being a rebel.

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The man who pays for him is undertaker Sowerby.  He likes Oliver’s wan looks that make him perfect as a mourner in front of the hearse at children’s funerals.  But poor Oliver is relentlessly tormented by fellow underling Noah Claypool. He goes a bit crazy and attacks Noah when he slurs Oliver’s mother.  The authorities are called but Oliver escapes and makes the long walk to London.

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In the city, Oliver is spotted by a pickpocket called The Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) who takes him home to Fagin (Alec Guiness), a fence who also runs a gang of boy thieves.  Before Oliver can be corrupted, however, he is caught for a theft attempted by the Dodger on gentleman Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson).  Mr. Brownlow is strangely drawn to the boy and takes him in.

Back at the home front, Fagin and his vicious colleague Bill Sykes (Robert Newton) are frantic that Oliver will tell tales.  They send Bill’s girlfriend Nancy (Kay Walsh) to spy on the boy.  Eventually, he is snatched and returned to the den of inequity.  Thereafter, it is a battle of good and evil with Nancy changing sides midway.

Throughout, there is an unlikely subplot dealing with a mysterious stranger who knows Oliver’s true identity and will do anything to keep it forever hidden.

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Alec Guiness’s performance as Fagin was one of his first big roles and he disappears into the character.  It is stereotypical almost to the point of anti-Semitism, though faithful to the character created by Dickens.  I appreciate that here, as in the novel but unlike the musical, Fagin is not a loveable old scallawag but a thorough rotter.  Robert Newton is awesome as Sykes and his performance in the aftermath of Nancy’s death is unforgettable.

But the real reason to see this movie is the beautiful, awe-inspiring visuals.  It is one of those films about which it can be said that each frame could be framed and hung.  The opening storm as Oliver’s mother trudges toward the workhouse to give birth is worth the price of admission.  Very highly recommended.

Trailer

They Live by Night (1948)

They Live by NightTheyLiveByNightPoster
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Charles Schnee and Nicholas Ray from the novel “Thieves Like Us” by Edward Anderson
1948/USA
RKO Radio Pictures
Repeat viewing/Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4

 

Mr. Hawkins, Wedding Chapel Proprietor: I believe in helping people get what they want as long as they pay for it. I marry people ‘cos there’s a little hope they’ll be happy. But I can’t take this money of yours. No sir. In a way I’m a thief just the same as you are, but I won’t sell you hope when there ain’t any.

There are plenty of films about lovers on the lam.  This one is more poignant than most and strikingly shot by Nicholas Ray.

Bowie (Farley Granger) has just escaped from prison, where he was serving a sentence for a murder that took place during a robbery he was involved in.  The luckless boy was the only one the police could catch.  Now he finds himself hiding out in a gas station with his much older felllow escapees, the alcoholic Chickamaw (Howard da Silva) and redneck T-Dub.

Bowie serves as getaway driver for a heist and is hurt in a crash.  When a policeman comes to investigate the accident, Chickamaw shoots him.  Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), the station owner’s daughter, grudgingly nurses Bowie and the two fall in love. But now Bowie has been tagged for the murder and the two flee together with the robbery proceeds.

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On a sudden impulse, the two get off the bus and marry at a truck-stop chapel.  The justice-of-the-peace speaks suggestively of his contacts in Mexico but the two press on.  Keechie falls pregnant and then everything goes to hell.

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Although it is firmly in the noir style, They Live by Night is actually more a tragic love story than a crime film.  O’Donnell gets a crack at a more complex character than usual for her, being hardbitten before she is tamed by love.  I thought she was very good.  Farley Granger is always Farley Granger to me.  I don’t find him too convincing.  The most notable aspect of the film are the awesome compositions and beautiful cinematography.  Ray pioneered the use of a helicopter to film an action sequence in the opening.

This was Ray’s first feature.  As was his wont, Howard Hughes put it on the shelf for two years before releasing it.

Clip – opening

A Hen in the Wind (1948)

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori)600full-a-hen-in-the-wind-poster
Directed by Yasujirô Ozu
Written by Yasujirô Ozu and Ryôsuke Saitô
1948/Japan
Shôchiku Eiga
First viewing/Hulu Plus

 

This is a film of unusual intensity by director Yasujiro Ozu, complemented by the usual intensity of actress Kinuyo Tanaka.

Tokiko (Tanaka) has been struggling to support her two-year-old son while she waits for her husband to come home from four long years in the army.  As the film opens,  she is trying to sell her last kimono just to meet living expenses.  She has resisted all suggestions that she use her “good looks” to bring home the bacon.  Then the toddler gets really ill and the hospital demands ten days advance payment.  She takes up the local madam on her offer for one night.

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Her best friend is appalled by her action.  Tokiko, herself, thinks maybe she should have sold the furniture instead but she wanted her husband to come home to the kind of home he left.

When the husband does come home, he inquires about his son’s health and Tokiko blurts out the truth.  The husband does not react well, to say the least.  He is full of rage and insists on learning every last detail.  The couple struggle through a lot of pain until the beautifully redemptive end.

hen in the windThis is a tad on the melodramatic side but Ozu’s use of ellision and transition shots distance the viewer from some of the pathos.  Tanaka gives a beautiful performance ranging from maternal tenderness to desperation.  Recommended.

Clip – the confession and aftermath

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)the-bicycle-thief-1948-movie-poster
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Written by Cezare Zavattini, Vittorio De Sica et al from a novel by Luigi Bartolini
1948/USA
Produzione De Sica
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#212 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Antonio Ricci: You live and you suffer.

Imagine a place and time when someone’s used sheets were worth enough to redeem a pawned bicycle …

We don’t know exactly how long Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggioriani) has been unemployed but we can be sure it has been a very long time.  He is elated when he is selected from a throng of men for a city job hanging posters.  The only catch is that he must provide his own bicycle.  Antonio has pawned his to help support his wife, young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and new baby.  In a fit of inspiration, his wife decides the family can do without her dowry sheets and Antonio gets the bike out of hock with the proceeds.

How proud Antonio feels when he gets his uniform and gleefully figures what his wages will do for the family!  He and Bruno polish the old bike until it shines.  But on one of Antonio’s first assignments the bicycle is snatched.  He spots the thief but is unable to catch him.  If he cannot retrieve the bicycle his job and dreams are over.

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So Antonio and Bruno spend the next day searching for the bicycle on the streets of the city.  It is amazing just how many bicycles are around.  They go to an open air market where seemingly thousands of stolen bikes and bike parts are for sale.  Although they have no luck there, other adventures bring them close to the thief himself.

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De Sica was the master of the devastating ending and this film represents the peak of his craft. This is another movie that hides a lot of humor amidst the sadness.  The scenes with the old man in the church are classic.  I really admire the way that De Sica can take an intensely poignant story like this one and view it with the detachment that keeps it from descending into melodrama.  His amateur actors could not have been bettered by professionals.  Clearly a movie to be seen before one dies.

Bicycle Thieves was voted by the Academy Board of Governors as the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States in 1949.  Cesare Zavattini also received a nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay.

1972 re-release trailer