The Way Ahead (1944)

The Way Ahead (AKA The Immortal Battallon)
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by Peter Ustinov and Eric Ambler based on an original story by Ambler
1944/UK
Two Cities Films
First viewing/YouTube

Pvt. Ted Brewer: Only one good man ever got into Parliament.

Pvt. Herbert Davenport: Oh really? Who?

Pvt. Ted Brewer: Bleedin’ Guy Fawkes.

Sometimes as I work my way down the list of films to see for a given year, I am tempted to succumb to a bit of boredom and cut things short.  Then an obscure little gem like this shows up and my enthusiasm is restored.

As the film begins, we see Lieutenant Jim Perry (David Niven), a recent returnee from Dunkirk and a career officer, training for combat duties.  We then move on to see the reactions of different men to the receipt of their draft notices. They range in occupation from a farmer and boiler mechanic to salesmen in a high-tone department store to a travel agent.  None is enthusiastic about joining the Army.  The stories of all intersect when their trains converge at the station from where all the men will travel to boot camp.  Unfortunately for the men, they have a confrontation with a uniformed soldier, who has heard all their defiance for authority and turns out to be their drill sergeant.

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The complaints continue once the men don their uniforms.  They believe their sergeant is working them extra hard because of the encounter at the train station.  One soldier goes so far as to complain to the lieutenant.  Then they get out of a war game by letting the enemy “kill” them.  The lieutenant skillfully shames them and eventually the men become a proud team of infantrymen ready and able to take on combat duty in North Africa.  With Stanley Holloway,John Laurie, and James Donald among the recruits and the twenty-one-year-old Peter Ustinov as a cafe keeper in North Africa (he speaks only French in the film). Trevor Howard made his screen debut in a small part as an officer on a transport vessel.

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I can’t understand why this film is not better known given the director and writers attached to it.  Most of the picture takes place in boot camp but there are some impressive action scenes both on a ship and defending a village toward the end.  The characters are all so human and we get to know them very well.  Although it had its origins as an army training film, it is remarkably free of sentimentality or jingoism.  It held my interest all the way through.  I can warmly recommend it.

Clips – one from the beginning and one from the very end

Tall in the Saddle (1944)

Tall in the Saddletall in the saddle poster
Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Written by Michael Hogan and Paul Fix; original story by Gordon Ray Young
1944/USA
RKO Radio Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Rocklin: I never feel sorry for anything that happens to a woman.

This is quite OK as Westerns go, though somebody should have modulated Ella Raines just a tad. Her shrillness did not convince as toughness.

Woman hater and confirmed bachelor Rocklin (John Wayne) finds a soul mate in rapscallion stage coach driver Dave (Gabby Hayes) and ends up riding shot gun with him to take up a ranch hand’s job in another location.  The other passengers, a harridanish old lady and her sweet charge, are the prospective new owners of the property.  Former owner Red Cordell and his former foreman were killed, allegedly by cattle rustlers.  The sweet young thing is immediately taken with Rocklin.  But no way is the old bat going to hire Rocklin.  Meanwhile, mysterious forces are out to get him.

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On arrival, Rocklin gets cheated in a poker game and has to take his rightful winnings at gunpoint.  Rough and tumble Arly Harraday (Raines), stepdaughter of the cheater’s father, not knowing the whole story, takes umbrage at Rocklin and starts taking pot shots at him. Rocklin further enrages her by easily wresting her gun away.  In the way of these things, Arly decides to hire him on at her ranch in order to have the pleasure of firing him later.  Before too long, she is sweet on him herself.  We get a classic love triangle with a little twist and some good Western action.  With Ward Bond as a duplicitous judge.

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I thought this was much more solid than your average B Western.  Raines is hard to take during the first part of the picture but she mellows out nicely by the end.  There seemed to be a school of thought that tough women went around in a sort of hysterical rage.  Claire Trevor can be guilty of this too.

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Together Again (1944)

Together AgainTogether Again poster
Directed by Charles Vidor
Written by Virginia Van Upp and F. Hugh Herman; story by Stanley Russell and Herbert Biberman
1944/USA
Columbia Pictures Corporation
First viewing/Netflix Rental

Maid: There’s only three things can start a woman talkin’ to herself: her bank account, her man, and her reputation, and they all three the same things, ain’t they?

This mostly preposterous romantic comedy is held together by the charm of the performances.

Anne Crandall (Irene Dunne) lives with her father (Charles Coburn) and wildly dramatic teenage step-daughter Diana (Mona Freeman).  Diana has a boyfriend whom she keeps dismissing called Gilbert.

Anne is now mayor of her small town following the death of her husband.  The husband was so popular that the town erected a statue in his honor and celebrates each anniversary of its installation with a ceremony.  The no-nonsense Anne has decided not to remarry but her father keeps egging her on.  One day, lighting strikes the statue and its head falls off.  The father sees it as a message from the husband that it is time for Anne to move on.  Diana insists there must be a new statue.

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Anne goes to the city to hire French sculptor George Corday.  He is immediately attracted to her bone structure.  Their date for dinner that night turns into an embarrassment for Anne and she decides to get another sculptor.  But George will not give up that easily. Then the movie descends into a ridiculous comedy of errors in which both the teenagers end up falling for the opposite sex adults.  Then there is the standard spat before the happy ending.

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One thing Dunne and Boyer had was oodles of chemistry.  You just believe their love.  I am really very fond of Dunne in everything.  The woman never seemed to age and there  is such a warmth and sense of fun about her.  We get another couple of very good performances out of Charles Coburn and Mona Freeman.  Pity about the plot.

No trailer or clip so a tribute to Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer with bits from Love Affair, When Tomorrow Comes, and Together Again

Summer Storm (1944)

Summer Stormsummer-storm-linda-darnell-1944-everett
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Written by Rowland Leigh, Douglas Sirk, and Robert Thoeren from the novel “The Shooting Party” by Anton Chekhov
1944/USA
Angelus Productions/Nero Films
First viewing/Netflix rental

Fedor Mikhailovich Petroff: You’re so beautiful; why is it that you degrade everything you touch?

Amazingly, the filmmakers decided to promote Linda Darnell as the next Jane Russell via this adaptation of a Chekhov story.  Fortunately, it is a much, much better film than The Outlaw.

The story begins at a publishing house after the Russian Revolution.  Impoverished Count “Piggy” Volsky has brought a manuscript written by his friend Fedor Petroff for sale to Nadena Kalenin, who has inherited her father’s publishing house.  The Count has not even bothered to read the manuscript.   Moved by her former association with its author, Nadena begins to read it and the film segues into flashback.

Beautiful peasant girl Olga (Darnell) dreams of the finer things.  She has the looks and drive to get them too.  Decadent district judge Fedor Petroff (George Saunders) has been redeemed by the love of sweet “intellectual” Nadena Kalenin (Anna Lee).  Count Volsky (Edward Everett Horton) is a lusty twit.

Anna is determined to get ahead by hook or by crook and agrees to a marriage arranged by her drunkard father with the Count’s overseer.  Before he knows of the engagement, Fedor stops to give Olga a lift in his carriage.  Despite his love for Nadena, he is overwhelmed by Olga’s beauty and soon has her in his arms.  It is with this encounter that all his troubles begin.

summer storm 2Fedor slyly convinces the Count to throw a wedding and reception for Olga and her groom and to invite all the elite.  Fedor even volunteers to be the best man at the wedding. During the party afterwards, Olga arranges things so that Nadena will see him kissing her and Nadena breaks off their engagement.  After she has Fedor thoroughly in her grip, however, Olga sets her sights on bigger things.  Tragedy is bound to follow.  With Hugo Haas as Olga’s husband and Sig Ruman as her father.

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This film has many highlights.  This may be the biggest part Horton ever had and he is quite funny in it.  Saunders shows he can play a tortured Russian romantic lead almost as well as he does a cad.  Darnell, despite all those poster shots, is fine and more calculating than sex-kittenish.  It’s certainly more of a period melodrama than it is a film noir as billed in my film noir guide.  If the story appeals, I’d recommend it.

This was only the second American film made by director Sirk who had been quite active in his native Germany and would go on to make such classic Technicolor melodramas as All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind.

Karl Hajos, borrowing liberally from Tchaikovsky,  was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.

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)

The Lodgerlodger_poster_02
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”

 

 

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.

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