Actor Spotlight: Robert Ryan

MV5BMTk3NjI1MDc4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjMwMTM2__V1_A fine way to test the quality of a self-proclaimed classic film fan`s devotion is to ask him to recite his personal litany of favorite actors and actresses. If the acquaintance with film is still casual, you will probably receive such standard answers as “Humphrey Bogart,” “Jimmy Stewart,” “Elizabeth Taylor,” or “Marilyn Monroe.” Not that there is anything wrong with any of these actors; on the contrary, choosing them as one’s favorites may sometimes be the sign of an experienced viewer with extensive knowledge of film. Yet it is worth persisting in one’s questioning, for a truly avid film fan will soon admit that he also harbors affection or esteem or interest or a combination thereof for less famous yet consistently good actors. One actor whose name often and deservedly arises in this connection among devotees of old Hollywood is Robert Ryan (1909-1973).

From his early days in Ginger Rogers pictures (Tender Comrade, 1943) to his turn in taboo-breaking Peckinpah Westerns (The Wild Bunch, 1969), Ryan provided a series of intelligent, nuanced, highly memorable performances. He resists easy classification, since he fell neither into the strictly “leading man” nor into the strictly “supporting character” category; instead, he alternated between roles which fell between the two classifications, thereby resisting typecasting and achieving a high degree of professional success, although some may argue that this technique explains his failure to achieve major stardom.

Still, Ryan may have sacrificed the temporary glory of Hollywood stardom for a more lasting kind of fame, since his wide range of performances and his resistance to easy classification ensured him a place in many worthy and memorable films. There was an unspoken rule, largely in force from the mid-Thirties through the mid-Fifties, that big stars could never play straight-out villains or shady characters; immediately evident or ultimate goodness was the fate of leading men and stars until the rise of the troubled “bad boy” in the Fifties, although it may be more accurate to call this a revival rather than a new phenomenon, since the morally ambiguous or morally flexible hero of the Pre-Code era shares a great deal with Dean, Brando, and their like. Clark Gable, perhaps the ultimate bad boy with a heart of gold and an eye for the ladies, started out his film career as a villain, transitioned to a dynamic heel in the Thirties, cemented that image in 1939 by playing Rhett Butler, and continued to create variations on that theme until the late 1950s, when he began to play solid, perhaps more complex, character parts. There were a few other actors who were permitted, for varying reasons, to have a similar, if not wider, range of characters available–James Mason, Dana Andrews, and Paul Douglas are three names which come to mind.

And Robert Ryan may also fall into that class more than into any other. One never knows, going into a Ryan picture, exactly what he will do, how he will turn out, if he will punch his antagonist or shoot him, if he will marry the girl or lead her off the straight and narrow path. So many people have written about the bitterness, the sense of lost hopes and missed opportunities, the coiled violence (to be dramatic about it) which lurks beneath the surface of Ryan’s characters. As a matter of fact, “lurks beneath the surface” is a phrase which peppers at least ninety percent of the material written about Ryan; unlike more showy actors, who telegraph every thought and emotion, Ryan merely suggests them, hints at them, looks them. There’s a precious but almost indescribable quality which some actors have, an ability to do much with very little; the closest I can come to putting it into words is “intelligence,” but I think it must have something to do with the extent of the actor’s understanding of the world and his grasp of the complexity that can underlie a single human psyche. Some actors know they are playing, in the most basic sense of the word, and so there is a kind of glee about their performances, an invitation to the audience to come play with them. Other actors embody a role as though they’re enacting a poem; there are only a certain amount of lines and actions allotted to them, but they manage to endow them with a dazzling range and depth of meanings and significances. Ryan, at his best, was one of this latter kind.

So here, without further ado, is a list of ten notable Robert Ryan performances, in no particular order. It’s not exhaustive by any means; please feel free to list other favorites in the comments below!

Odd Against Tomorrow (1959)–Robert Ryan plays an aging, bitter, bigoted man with a taste for violence and crime. This film noir indictment of racism, directed by Robert Wise, also stars Harry Belafonte, Shelley Winters, and, in a brief but notable scene, the inimitable Gloria Grahame.

Born to Be Bad (1950)–In this early Nicholas Ray film, Joan Fontaine plays the scheming Christabel Caine (note that name!) who has set her sights on wealth and position since her impoverished girlhood. Ryan plays a novelist who is fascinated both professionally and romantically with Christabel, aware of her duplicity from the start but hoping to win her anyways. Ryan invests what could be a cliché part with his trademark “depth,” and contributes generously to the film’s appeal.

Clash by Night (1952)–Barbara Stanwyck marries Paul Douglas in the hopes of settling down and finding purpose after a life of extensive failures. Then she meets Robert Ryan, a projectionist at the local movie theater and Douglas’s best friend. Directed by Fritz Lang, with Marilyn Monroe in a small early role, and an evocative small-town feel.

Caught (1949)–Ryan plays a brutal millionaire highly reminiscent of Howard Hughes. Barbara Bel Geddes is the girl who marries him too quickly, and James Mason is the kind, understanding doctor she meets too late. There’s a lot left unsaid in the film, but it may be the more powerful for that.

The Naked Spur (1953)–Anthony Mann directed this short, tight, morally complex Western starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker, and our man Ryan. The latter plays an unconventional villain with great style and gusto.

Lonelyhearts (1958)Based on the searing Nathanael West novel, this film stars Montgomery Clift, Dolores Hart, Myrna Loy, and Maureen Stapleton, with Robert Ryan as embittered newspaper editor William Shrike. Critics have claimed that much of the book’s power is eroded by the cleaned-up film treatment , but if the film is accepted on its own terms, it emerges as a largely well-written, unusual, and highly powerful picture, with top-notch performances all-round (although Dolores Hart’s part suffers from poor writing).

Act of Violence (1948)–This noir stars Van Heflin as a peaceful, domestic father and husband whose dark wartime past comes to haunt him when Robert Ryan, a former fellow-soldier and POW, re-enters his life athirst for revenge. Fred Zinneman directs this small but hard-hitting picture, which has all the best qualities of noir while coming at them from an unusual angle. Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter, and Janet Leigh lend able support.

On Dangerous Ground (1952)–Another Nicholas Ray-directed noir, with Ryan as a sadistic cop, Ida Lupino as a blind woman, and a vivid shift from city streets to snowy countryside halfway through.

About Mrs. Leslie (1954)–A real mid-century curiosity, this picture stars Shirley Booth as a middle-aged woman who runs a boarding-house and has had one memorable romance with a mysterious stranger who swept her away to a seaside cottage for two weeks each year. The film is oddly constructed, and the story is pure woman’s magazine material (there are heavy echoes of Fannie Hurst and Back Street) , but there are some amusing moments (both intentional and unintentional) and even a few touching ones. Ryan brings enough dignity and edge to the mysterious businessman to keep the film from sinking stickily in its own juices.

The Set-Up (1949)–Ryan stars in this compact Robert Wise film as a battered, aging boxer who comes face to face with the tougher side of the boxing industry. Audrey Totter is his quite understandably concerned wife.

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Noir Night: Hollow Triumph (1948)

MV5BYmQxNzNkNDItMGQxNy00OGE1LWE3MDEtYWVkYWE0ODM4ZTcxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDI2NDg0NQ@@__V1_SX1024_CR0,0,1024,1610_AL_Although today Paul Henreid is best known for his roles as the patriotic husband in Casablanca and the dashing yet unattainable love interest in Now, Voyager, his acting career spanned several decades and contained a number of other notable roles. Because of his aristocratic background and foreign accent, the Austrian-born Henreid (a firm anti-Fascist who moved to England in 1935 and came to Hollywood in 1942) played many European characters. Later in his career he directed several feature films and quite a lot of television episodes. In fact, one of his most interesting films, titled Hollow Triumph on its release in 1948 and later re-released under the title The Scar, was produced by him.

Based on a novel by Murray Forbes and directed by Steve Sekely, Hollow Triumph is one of those noir films which lurk (quite appropriately) in the shadows and surprise viewers by their unsuspected excellencies. Shot by famed cinematographer John Alton (whose other credits include The Big Combo (1955) and parts of the 1951 An American in Paris), the movie offers particularly notable instances of the visual darkness and hostile settings which fill noir. Alton does remarkable things with lighting and nighttime photography, as well as shooting from unusual angles and providing some cleverly unusual close-ups, both of the stars and of supporting characters. But he does this in such a way as to serve and enrich the story, lending it a depth which is mirrored in its themes.

The film opens as John Muller (Paul Henreid) leaves prison and immediately gathers his men together in order to pull off one last, profitable heist at a gambling joint. But the plans falls apart as it unfolds, and although Muller gets away, the lethal gangster who runs the joint swears to catch up with him and kill him. Muller initially takes a respectable though lowly job in the hopes of staying below the radar, but a close brush with two hit men and a chance encounter with a doctor (John Qualen) who mistakes him for a distinguished psychoanalyst in his building convince him to change his mind and take a more difficult and perhaps more rewarding path. He soon discovers that this psychoanalyst, Dr. Victor Bartok, looks exactly like him, with the exception of a scar on one cheek. So close is the resemblance, in fact, that it initially leads Dr. Bartok`s secretary, Evelyn Hahn (Joan Bennett), to mistake Johnny for Dr. Bartok. Evelyn and Muller engage in a little romance which is ended by the latter when he decides to take on Dr. Bartok`s identity and position for good…or so he thinks.

The powers of fate and coincidence, so often evoked in noir, are remarkably active in Hollow Triumph. The film contains several marvellously bitter examples of dramatic irony, and is also pervaded by a very real sense of desperation and loneliness, especially in Muller and Evelyn. Henreid gives an excellent performance as Muller, showing the character`s many dimensions and making the audience root for him despite the very bad choices he makes, shall we say. In his few brief appearances as Dr. Bartok, Henreid manages to create a believable portrait of a cold, self-assured, egotistical man quite distinct from Muller; one of the film`s most interesting aspects is its treatment of the doppelgänger theme. Henreid conveys Muller`s almost theatrical understanding of his undertaking–once Muller decides to be Bartok, he engages in detective work meant to serve as study for a new role. Thus there is an aspect of theater which is inherent in the plot itself, and its coupling with the uncanny element of the double increases its complexity. In a sense, Muller is preparing to play himself, or what seems like another version of himself; in another sense, Muller is consciously treating life as a game, a game of chance, perhaps, if we put the real Bartok`s life in contrast to Muller`s. As we see at the beginning, as the heist is pulled off, and later in Muller`s detective work as he prepares to become Bartok, Muller believes in choice and man`s ability to forge his own path, although his criminal record and activities seem to show that he considers these goods only available at the cost of violence. But chance, coincidence, fate, destiny, whatever one wants to call it, is a recurring, perhaps even the defining, characteristic of Muller`s life, as it is also in the lives of Bartok and Evelyn. In a sense, all three of them are playing complicated games which dissolve and deny their mastery at the touch of coincidence.

The theme of the double is thereby paired with the theme of one`s unalterable personality and inescapable fate. Several small moments within the movie build on this opposition; for instance, Muller once comes into his dark room and is startled by what turns out to be only his image in the mirror. Another example is Evelyn`s romantic involvement with two nearly identical men and the parallelism of her relationships with them (it`s worth noting that Bennett`s character is a surprisingly realistic one for the times, and also contrasts a hard-boiled, bitter attitude with a more tender, honest side). The escape seemingly offered to each character through their introduction to a different kind of life–Evelyn through her romance with Muller, Muller through his initial adjustments to his role as Bartok–appear to be breaks from reality, alternate universes, since they appear so unpredictable, so blatantly determined by chance. If Muller had not walked into Bartok`s office when Evelyn was there, if Bartok had not made a previous engagement with Virginia (Leslie Brooks), then things might have been very different–so they think. But in fact the seemingly random and spur-of-the-moment decisions made by the main characters lead to situations from which there is no escape. Again, this is so typically noirish that it is absolutely classic.

Eduard_Franz-Paul_Henreid_in_Hollow_Triumph

Muller (Henreid) learns of his friend`s death from a paper given him by his brother Frederick (Eduard Franz, on the left).

Equally classic is the presentation of minor characters as similarly trapped and destiny-plagued creatures. In a series of unusual, memorable, fleeting close-ups during the opening heist, Alton captures the faces of some gambling patrons as they fix their souls and their money on a turn of dice or a spin of a wheel. They too hope that chance will be kind to them, but we can see from their anxious, fixed eyes and obsession-ridden faces that such will not be the case, or at least not for long. This is a doomed world, the film proclaims, and we`re all in it, even you people who think you`re supporting characters and therefore will be spared the melodrama and anguish of the leads. No such luck, we`re told, or rather, luck doesn`t last that long. It has to run out sometime, and if you want a sure bet, the only one we have is that it gives out at the wrong time.

Also in line with the creeds of the noir world is Hollow Triumph`s blistering sense of the egotism and self-centeredness of the average human being. Some of the film`s bitterest humor–and there is a surprising amount of it–comes when Muller realizes how unobservant even Bartok`s most intimate friends and acquaintances are. Qualen has a funny scene in this connection, but the truth of Muller`s realization is only deepened as the film goes on, not least because he himself is guilty–as we all are–of the same thing in his own relationships with others. The triumph of destiny is the only thing that trumps the game all humans play, the game which demands the triumph of the ego over all. To a certain extent, Muller is a prime example of that game, since from the film`s beginning he has been involved in schemes designed to ensure his gratification at the expense of others. Yet once again this game is a dangerous one, since it is so intricately intertwined with a sense of personality and integrity. When Muller needs his own identity back after playing so long with another man`s, it is too late.

In this connection as well, chance and the inherent selfishness of humans plays into the course of events. During the scene at the garage when Muller fills the gas tank, the heist, and the scene with the ambitious garage attendant, the overriding concern of each person with his own affairs serves Johnny well. The gambling metaphor which is present throughout the film is brought out well in these sections, as also in the sections when Johnny appears to be a better Bartok than Bartok ever was. The humorous aspects of the doppelgänger angle and the implications of the psychoanalyst angle are not neglected.

Nor does Hollow Triumph fail to offer its own instances of what is one of the single most fascinating aspects of noir: the poetic introduction or presence of seemingly peripheral yet thematically significant minor characters, highly colored individuals whose brief appearances elevate the film above routine excursions into clichéd plot and endow it with something approaching the richness of a picaresque novel. Notable examples of this phenomenon can be found in Somewhere in the Night (1946) and Cry of the City (1948), among others. In Hollow Triumph we have the garage attendant with Astaire-like ambitions, mentioned above, and later on the humble aged cleaning-woman who provides one of the film`s best moments. (Henreid`s tenderness in this short scene is remarkable and the mark of a nuanced and intelligent actor.)

In conclusion, Hollow Triumph is a worthy and significant part of the noir canon, and should be more openly acknowledge as such. Its themes, while they may sound heavy and academic in print, are treated in consistently cinematic terms which render the film a pleasure rather than a task to watch. Indeed, a more extensive film might profitably have made even more use of the elements discussed above; nevertheless it stands as a beautifully designed and well-acted movie, almost shockingly knowledgable about the toll taken by the inner battles humans wage in their struggle through life. It`s not for nothing that the film could be structurally described as two mirror images facing each other, or as a picture examining the idea of one`s own image versus the image of oneself seen by others. The primacy of the self, and its inescapability, are themes which could and have been discussed at more length, but surely rarely with more impact than in this little 82-minute Eagle-Lion Studio picture.

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A Thousand Clowns (1965): Film Review

220px-Thousand_clowns

Although many films have come to the screen via the stage, not all plays have been happily adapted to this more visual medium. The main problem faced by these kinds of projects have to do with the art form itself; while a play necessarily gets by on talk, a film needs enough action, or at least enough visual interest, to keep its audience interested. No matter how good a play’s dialogue is, it can easily transform into a stagy, talky flop unless its transference to the screen is effected with skill and care.

The makers of the 1965 comedy A Thousand Clowns seem to have been aware of the difficulties they had to overcome. The play A Thousand Clowns was written by Herb Gardner and produced on Broadway in 1962; Jason Robards (who bears a remarkable resemblance in voice and looks to Humphrey Bogart) played the main character, Murray Burns, on both stage and screen. Yet while much of the film takes place in Murray’s eccentrically-furnished one-room apartment in the middle of Manhattan, much of the film’s opening sequence, and some later sections as well, unroll in various picturesque New York City locales, ranging from Central Park to Wall Street to the Statue of Liberty. But this location shooting is not merely a way to  break up the monotony of a one-set picture; on the contrary, the decision made by scriptwriter Herb Gardner and director Fred Coe to “open up” the script by including exteriors adds immensely to the movie itself,  since it shows us Murray’s antics at first hand and provides memorable visual contrasts between his bohemian ways and the mass movements of the city crowds.

The film tells the story of the highly nonconformist Murray Burns (Robards), a former writer for a children’s TV comedy show, who has quit his job some months ago and is vigorously enjoying a life without the soul-deadening routine of work and orderly home life which he sees being lived all around him. He is attempting to instill this carefree attitude into his twelve-year-old nephew Nick (Barry Gordon), who he has raised since the child was five; Murray once describes his ward as “a middle-aged child.” Nick, who is well-acquainted with normal adult standards, puzzled by their practices, and desperately polite to outsiders, has the nervous, strained expression which one sees on the faces of children thrust too soon into the problems of adult life. But his fears are soon justified when two social workers turn up at Murray’s apartment to investigate the environment and see if Murray is qualified to  bring up the child by himself.

Although one of the social workers appears to embody all the less pleasant clichés about scientific sociologists, the other one, Dr. Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), is charmed by the child and his uncle and very rapidly becomes involved with the latter. She tries to persuade Murray to find a job so that he can convince the Child Welfare Board that he is a reliable man fully capable of bringing up his nephew, and in this task she is aided by Murray’s brother Arnold (Martin Balsam in an Academy Award-winning supporting performance), an agent.

The film’s story is nothing very unusual or original; but what elevates it is its writing and style. Murray pours forth floods of clever, vivid, amusing talk, and the other characters are also frequently witty or otherwise verbally satisfying. Nick’s talk (and sometimes Murray’s and Arnold’s as well) often has the kind of Jewish rhythms and colloquialisms which later entered mainstream culture through the films of Woody Allen; it’s possible that the play was more explicitly “Jewish” than the film, but the wonderful flexibility and vivacity of expression remains.

The movie to a certain extent presents Murray as a comic, humane figure, one of those non-conforming artistic types which film has always loved. There are echoes of Chaplin and Fellini here and there in theme, image and technique, as the absurdity of commercial life and the joys of the chronically undomesticated are recorded; there’s something refreshingly un-typical about the whole thing, and that’s largely due to the camerawork and the location shooting, as well as the slow dissolves, intercutting, and deliberately unsynchronized editing which are interspersed throughout. A visit to a junkyard in the first minutes of the film, with broken lamps hanging down the frame against the open sky above; a wordless but eloquent montage of people and animals eating, providing a sharp commentary on the existence of crowd routine, the struggle for existence, and the nature of business life all the same time; and a lovely use of banjo music, a bicycle built for two, and New York City to communicate the development of a romance are only a few examples of the remarkable use of film as storytelling medium and art form within the movie.

Joined to the visual excellences of the film is the textual element already mentioned, which is done justice to by a range of universally fine performances. Gene Saks has two memorable, hectic scenes as Leo Herman, the host of a horrifying children’s TV show and Murray’s former employer. The breadth of the play itself is further demonstrated by the quality of the “bad” characters, such as Herman and social worker Albert Amundson (William Daniels). The dangers of stories about non-conformists and enemies of convention are many, chief of which is the tendency to write all regular wage-earners as soulless and money-grubbing entities. But Amundson, Herman, and especially Arnold Burns are far more than one-dimensional characters, and that fact turns the film into something that approaches greatness, since it acknowledges the complexity even of those it posits as “other” to its philosophical compass.

The script’s biggest remaining problem is its ultimately rather weak answer to the question it posed at the start. Murray finally chooses to embrace a traditional, conventional, somewhat dignity-eroding life in order to preserve the human relationships which he comes to value even more highly than his personal freedom; but the closing scene implies that doing so destroys or abolishes much of his fundamental personality. That seems a trifle condescending, as well as rather simplistic. A truly artistic person will make an effort to pursue his “dreams” by writing, composing, painting, at all costs, in his spare time if he can find no other. Choosing a decently-paying job does not necessarily mean rejecting one’s creative ambitions for all time, yet that seems to be the conclusion here. Furthermore, a writer of such caliber as Murray could surely choose a more fulfilling job, or work towards one more in line with his talents.

Another possibility, however, is that Murray is not really meant to be seen as an admirable–or at least wholly admirable–character. This is hinted at several times during the film–during Amundson’s second visit and Arnold’s final speech, for instance–but again, the question is never satisfactorily addressed. Although Murray’s joie de vivre is unmistakable, his chief amusements are either physical or remarkably childish–bicycling, flying kites, waving at departing ships, making fun of others or playing verbal games. Is there an element of irresponsibility, of laziness, of escapism, of rampant immaturity in this rebellious attitude towards life that is fundamentally untenable as well as unfruitful? Once more the film weakens itself by never seeming to be quite sure or willing to commit to one particular answer. The same question also arises in the presentation of Sandra, who embraces life and love in the person of Murray with remarkable rapidity, but then becomes infected with domesticity and swamps Murray’s apartment with flowered drapery and artificial plants, even discarding his cherished and clearly symbolic metal eagles to increase the homey atmosphere.

But even with these thematic issues, A Thousand Clowns remains a visual and intellectual delight. The conflict between happiness as freedom, and the compromises and deadening qualities of a typical working-class life, is still pondered, debated, and bewailed. Meanwhile, we can all take 114 minutes on some weekend and forget our weekly travails–or reexamine and rethink them–by watching a chapter in the life of Murray Burns and taking to heart his injunction to appreciate “the subtle, sneaky, important reason why…[one is] born a human being and not a chair.”

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The Vanquished (1953): Film Review

The_Vanquished_posterNot all movies are created equal. There are some great movies, movies which make the “Greatest Films of All Time” lists or are hailed as “underrated masterpieces” or labeled as “hidden gems.” Other films–maybe even most films, if one were to look at this in terms of numbers–can lay no such claims to fame. Designed to tell a story as straightforwardly as possible, these movies may be enjoyable and well-produced, but they tend to bear a marked resemblance to each other.

This may explain why the 1953 movie The Vanquished seems so familiar even upon a first viewing. The film is generally categorized as a Western, but this seems due more to its cast (star John Payne often headlined Westerns) than to its setting, which is very much a Southern one. Set in 1866, The Vanquished sets forth the story of a corrupt civil adminstrator (Lyle Bettger as one of his frequent villains) who outrages the little Southern town he rules with a despotic and cruel hand. Despite being a native of the town, this administrator, Roger Hale by name, jumps at the chance to enrich himself by taking advantage of the military governance which the North is imposing on the recently conquered South. He finds like-minded accomplices in the rascally Northern soldier Captain Kirby (Willard Parker) and Rose Slater (a lovely red-haired Jan Sterling), who was born on the wrong side of the tracks and knows it.

Into this troubled setting comes Rock Grayson (John Payne, the hero of the picture), who fought for the South during the war but now has been sent by higher authorities to investigate complaints from the citizens about their new government. Also a native of the town, Rock surprises his Southern friends and fellow-townsmen by refusing to join them either in their nostalgia for their lost cause or in their dislike of Hale. On the contrary, Rock accepts a position as Hale’s right-hand man and helps him to depossess farmers who fail to pay their taxes, all the while keeping a close eye on Hale and his tricky ways. But his faithfulness to orders and refusal to dwell on the past also imperils his relationship with Jane Colfax (Coleen Gray), the doctor’s daughter, who grew up while he was away at war and still loves him… And the plot continues to unfold rapidly along these lines during the entire 84 minutes, as Hale discovers Grayson’s true colors and seeks to protect his ill-gotten gains at all costs.

The mark of a second-class film, as many have noted down the course of film history, is a concentration on simple action as opposed to character. Plot is, of course, a good way to show character, but that requires a story complex and nuanced enough t0 satisfy an audience`s desire to understand fully the people on screen. The Vanquished, however, relies mostly on the skill of its actors to convey a sense of reality to its characters. That is not to discount the presence of some nice touches in the writing; there are good lines now and then, and the story progresses smoothly and satisfactorily. But it misses its chance of becoming a really top-notch film by failing to take advantage of the interesting possibilities latent in its material. The relationships between Rose and Hale, and Rose and Grayson, could be explored further, although Jan Sterling is both beautiful and effective as the money-loving Miss Slater; Coleen Gray is good as Jane, but she has little chance to do more than play the ultimately devoted and understanding sweetheart; and the ambiguities of Grayson`s position, as a Southerner who returns to his hometown a loyal American and enters his former home only as a guest, could have been used to heighten the tensions of the story.

Were these and similar issues examined, the movie could do justice to its title and take on finer shadings, becoming a unique and thoughtful film. Instead, the filmmakers made an obvious choice in favor of action and excitement, and so we have event following upon event, in somewhat predictable fashion. There is a considerable amount of footage showing people riding furiously up or down dirt roads, especially towards the end, and we have no shortage of wild escapes into the night and people being knocked on the head or shot or betrayed. Also present is the astonishingly swift ending and concluding romantic clinch (prefaced by the customary remark) which unfailingly characterize the ending of this kind of movie.

Still, these criticisms are made less to depreciate the film than to describe it. The Vanquished was probably designed to entertain audiences who wanted a lively and exciting hour and a half showing situations and problems which would divert them while not causing them too much of a strain. And in this it succeeds very well; the Technicolored world it represents is meticulously rendered in the most pleasant way, with the interiors and costumes being particularly noteworthy, while the actors fulfill their roles with admirable zest. John Payne is often described as “dependable“ or “reliable,“ but I suspect that is because he is often confused with the dependability of the character he so frequently played in this kind of movie. If we switch out the setting, the leading lady, and the supporting actors for other ones, we get a typical 1950s John Payne movie. Not that that`s a bad thing; on the contrary, it guarantees a well-made, colorful, fast-moving little picture, and sometimes that`s exactly what one wants. And after all, how could we have a great movie if we didn`t have so many that were only good against which to compare it?

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Guest in the House (1944): Film Review

Guest_in_the_House_PosterSome guests seem to bring happiness with them on their visits, pulling joy out of their suitcases along with their toothbrushes and pajamas; other guests serve mostly to remind their hosts how beautiful life was before they arrived. In the 1944 movie Guest in the House, directed by John Brahm and produced by Hunt Stromberg, we see a supreme example of the latter kind of visitor. Although the film is not quite as compelling as it could have been–for reasons we will discuss later–it offers an entertaining and somewhat frightening picture of the havoc a lone girl with a heart condition and a troubled mind can wreak upon a hitherto contented household.

It’s not exactly a typical household,  however. As the film opens, Dan Proctor (Scott McKay) is bringing his new fiancé Evelyn Heath (Anne Baxter) to his native hometown in Maine. Dan is a doctor who met and fell in love with Evelyn while she was at a clinic; she has a heart condition and has had a traumatic past which seems to have involved a violent or disturbed father, although this is never fully clarified.

The family to which Dan introduces Evelyn consists of his brother Douglas (Ralph Bellamy in a rare non-milquetoast role), Douglas’s wife Ann (Ruth Warwick), and their little daughter Lee (Connie Laird). Douglas, a commercial artist, lives in the beautiful coast-side house wherein most of the film takes place; the household also includes his live-in model Miriam (Marie McDonald), and married servants Hilda and John (Margaret Hamilton and Percy Kilbride). Aunt Martha (Aline MacMahon) lives in a cottage nearby but spends much of her time with the Proctors. It’s a happy household, full of good food, comradeship, and sea air. At first Evelyn seems to be as delighted with everybody as they are with her; but she is soon revealed to the audience as a nefarious, plotting creature who craves romantic love yet itches to control those around her.

Most of the film follows the results of Evelyn’s plotting after she decides she wants Douglas and his house for herself and sets out to get them (opinions may be divided on the count of Ralph Bellamy’s level of desirability, but surely we can all sympathize with the part of the scheme concerning that house). First she banishes her devoted fiancé; then she sets about sowing dark suspicions concerning the relationship between Douglas and his pretty model. In fact it’s strictly professional, with a side of camaraderie, but it’s not hard to imagine otherwise. (Name one other movie wherein the artist’s model shares the artist’s family home! Furthermore, Douglas and Miriam appear to spend far more time together than do Douglas and Ann, despite the fact that the latter’s very loving relationship is established near the start of the film.)

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Anne Baxter

The film is heavy with confrontations and angry conversations, while Anne Baxter’s performance is by no means a subtle one. She looks perfect for the part; she has a kind of fresh All-American-Girl beauty that’s effortless, effective, and innocent at the same time. But Bosley Crowther was right (albeit unkind) when he wrote in his original review that Miss Baxter “plays the wrecker with so much coyness that anyone, shy of a blind man, could see that she was up to tricks.” The movie was based on a play, which may explain the constant talk and incessant going up and coming down on the stairs, but these elements add to the feeling of claustrophobia that builds throughout. The house seems a fairly isolated little place, and the lighthouse flashing across the water and through the windows at night (as in the ingenious opening credit sequence) adds to the film’s atmosphere in an thematically appropriate way. Miss Heath is dangerous, it seems to warn, but the Proctors bask in their happy trust for quite a while before all becomes only too clear.

There are some very unique, memorable touches to the film, probably also stemming from its stage origins. Evelyn is obsessively fond of playing “Liebestraum” on her new gramophone, has an alarming phobia about birds, confides her inmost thoughts to a neat little diary, and has the tactics of manipulation down to a science. (She, her clean-cut beauty, the waterside setting, several aspects of the plot, and the prominent staircase prefigure very similar elements in 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven.) There is a somewhat chilling moment when Lee attempts to imitate her new friend, and the dark, stormy sequence when Evelyn is alone in the house in her moment of triumph is well-done. One shot of Evelyn behind a window from the outside of the rain-swept pane indicates the cinematic possibilities lurking in the material but never fully taken advantage of.

One of the script’s main problems, however, lies in its presentation of Evelyn. We’re givenan13267990_1 hints of her terrible past and genuine heart problems, but her disturbed mind and consequently twisted perceptions and desires are often presented more as symptoms of malice than as the sick manifestations of a mentally ailing person. If she is indeed unstable, she needs medical help more than anything else; if she’s just manipulative, then her past wouldn’t be so relevant to the tale. But since these things are never untangled, the story’s force is weakened considerably. And then there is the ending, which will not be revealed here but which in fact accentuates the confusions highlighted above, while also being deeply disturbing.

Guest in the House has sometimes been categorized as a film noir, but that description is not quite accurate. It has more in common with the “scheming woman” movies of which Leave Her to Heaven, Born to Be Bad (1950), and The Wicked Lady (1945) are notable examples. This category overlaps sometimes with noir and sometimes with women’s pictures and does not always feature the murder or physical violence inseparable from true noir, although it invariably has intrigue and a calculated use of feminine wile. Perhaps Anne Baxter’s greatest dramatic triumph–and certainly her most famous role–was in the 1950 classic All About Eve, which is in some degree anticipated by Guest in the House. But All About Eve‘s sharp script saved it from most of the melodramatic pitfalls common to the genre, while Guest in the House could have used more of the amusing, sharp dialogue which fills its successor and  does sometimes crop up in the older film, notably in Evelyn’s and Miriam’s exchange about modeling.

In all fairness, there appear to have been some cuts made to the version of Guest in the House which is currently available. IMDb lists a run time of 121 minutes, while the copy watched for the purposes of this review was only 100 minutes. It would be intriguing to compare the two versions, but in the meantime, even this shortened edition of Evelyn Heath’s stay in the Proctors’ house offers its fair share of thrills and shocks, including a few worthy of, and perhaps even inspirational for, Hitchcock himself.

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On Moonlight Bay (1951): Film Review

on-moonlight-bay-movie-poster-1951-1020686135On Moonlight Bay (1951) is a candy-colored semi-musical which purports to be based on the “Penrod” stories of Booth Tarkington, and the movie does indeed present a troublesome boy called Wesley Winfield (portrayed by Billy Gray). But while Tarkington’s writings focused on the misadventures and misbehavior of a young boy growing up at the turn of the century, On Moonlight Bay expands its horizons by including the boy’s parents (Leon Ames and Rosemary De Camp) and his older sister Marjorie (Doris Day) in the story.

The Winfield family has just moved into a new house as the film opens in 1917 Indiana, and only Mr. Winfield (a prosperous banker) is happy about this. It’s hard to understand why, as it’s a huge, lovely house that bears more than a passing resemblance to the one in the 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis, but the plot’s the thing, and so the Winfields mourn their unwanted move at first, as does their extremely forthright maid Stella (Mary Wickes). Marjorie, who is outfited as the typical pre-feminization tomboy of the movies (loose, unbecoming boys’ clothes, pigtails, no makeup), undergoes a rapid transition into the world of femininity and fashionable attire after meeting the young man across the street, a certain William Sherman (Gordon MacRae). Their romance progresses at a swift pace, punctuated by Wesley’s shenanigans and some contretemps introduced by William Sherman’s conscientious objections to institutions and conventions, including marriage and banking. Mr. Winfield objects to such a suitor for his daughter, backing  as his favorite in the race for Marjorie’s hand a pedantic and spectacled young man (Jack Smith).

The film looks very pretty, and although the glance it casts back at the 1910s is undeniably nostalgic, it does capture with a good deal of accuracy much of the look and atmosphere of that era, again recalling the similar feat of Meet Me in St. Louis. Unlike this parent film, it cannot offer a memorable score; the songs which crop up every so often are mostly forgettable. But a good deal of care must have gone into the picture as a whole, and some of the little things in it are very agreeable, such as the Winfields’ flowered china, and the meticulously seasonally-appropriate decorations festooning Wesley’s classroom, and the almost fairy-like colors and glowing Chinese lanterns of an early scene at a fair. Wesley’s birthday party, late in the film, reminds us of the gulf that separates that time from this in the matter of social conventions; in fact, it must be among the most Tarkingtonian parts of the film, and recalls many passages in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. To the modern viewer, the film seems a quaint relic of an age long gone, but many people among its contemporary audience must have been reminded of their not too distant youth. It’s interesting to note how pastel-colored the early century looked even then to an America that was enjoying its post-war boom.

While the film is easy on the eyes, it seems somewhat unsure as to what path to take, especially towards the end. The carefree tone which characterizes roughly the first two-thirds becomes lost in an unecessary and somewhat forced attempt at serious drama when Marjorie’s beau joins the army and the young lovers’ attempt to marry is interrupted by Mr. Winfield’s disapproval of William. Doris Day and Gordon MacRae look charming and prosperous and are beautifully colored, almost as though they had been molded out of Technicolor, but they do not offer much in the way of dramatic substance. They do their best, and it’s a valiant, determined best, but they are not helped by the script, which seems to lose heart and take a cowardly refuge in cliches, stock situations, and recycled dialogue.

Yet the film never quite loses that special quality that leads one to expect that better things are lurking around the bend of the very next minute. Little Wesley does quite well altogether, showing some progress towards maturity, and there is an interesting attempt to “humanize” the suddenly unbending father by reminding him of his own unregenerate boyhood. There is a freshness in the movie (perhaps it’s just the cheery Technicolor) which puts one in a friendly, well-wishing mood and lets one accept it as a pleasant enough entertainment without too rigorous criticism. Contemporary audiences must have been beguiled as well, because a sequel arrived in 1953, called By the Light of the Silvery Moon and featuring the same actors.

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Ikiru (1952): An Unconventional Easter Film Pick

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Surprisingly enough, there aren`t a lot of specifically Easter-themed films. Some people compensate for this fact by watching religious movies at this time of the year, most often one of the great Biblical epics made in the 1950s and early 60s, things like Ben Hur (1959) or The Ten Commandments (1956) or King of Kings (1961). But the truth is that these films rarely manage to move the more critical viewer, whatever his religious beliefs. Some scenes or moments in each are highly effective, but as a whole the movies are best viewed as entertainment rather than aids to devotion.

I would therefore propose, as a fitting and worthwhile alternative (or at least supplement) to these films, a picture which communicates truths about life, death, choice, and the common plight of humanity in a deeply moving way, and one which can be immediately grasped by audiences regardless of race, religion, or nationality. Akira Kurosawa`s 1952 film Ikiru–which means “To live“–tells the story of a man who suddenly discovers that he is dying. The movie examines his last days, how he chooses to spend them, and how his legacy affects those he leaves behind. Ikiru has rightly been deemed one of the world`s greatest films.

It`s not a religious film, but its message is universal and life-affirming, while the movie also manages to be almost painfully realistic in its presentation of human behavior. And since it doesn`t offer any of the often distracting splendor and grandiosity marking the Biblical stories as interpreted by Hollywood, it may in fact awaken altruistic and benevolent emotions more effectively than those Technicolored epics, if such a rousing of the more noble emotions is what people want from an Easter movie. In any case it is guaranteed to make people seriously reconsider their own lives, and that is something which is important at any time of the year.

Furthermore–to close on a lighter note–it offers an unforgettable scene featuring a little toy bunny, and on that basis alone should qualify as an Easter movie.

Please share your own picks for either traditional or non-traditional Easter movies in the comments below! And if you want to see a movie with an unconventional use of a toy bunny, see this post.

 

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