Michael Winner's Scorpio is an engaging spy thriller. It's got the same basic ingredients as many films in the genre: Cold War tension, brilliant covert solo operators who take on the world, untrustworthy bureaucrats in Washington and Moscow, double-crosses, ageing spys and their young replacements … should I continue ? This film succeeds because the three leads Lancaster, Delon and Scofield command our attention, each in their own way. And Lancaster's athletic stunts at age 59 are impressive.
Garson Kanin's My Favorite Wife is a pleasant rom-com brought to life by its two leads. Irene Dunne has a sly twinkle in her eye for most of the film, and Cary Grant a beleaguered one in his. The film's charm was surely great in 1940, when its delicate and funny approach was one of the few ways to address taboo subjects such as extramarital sex and bigamy for a wide audience.
WS Van Dyke's The The Man is a clever crime mystery wrapped in a light romantic comedy, so Dashiell Hammett's story and characters deserve at least as much credit as Van Dyke and the producer Stromberg. It's got a pleasing cinematography that highlights the Art Deco sets with distance shots and the sharp dialogue with close-ups. The famous William Powell - Myrna Loy relationship works, they are a great and convincing screen couple, and the film is better whenever Loy is on screen. The constant boozing, used to create a certain effect, comes across as annoying and affected in our day.
Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey is a brilliant screwball comedy, class satire, sweet romance and Depression era plea for the rich to use their wealth to help the unlucky common people. It is also a beautiful film, with sumptuous black & white images of fabulous art deco sets and ladies' fashion. William Powell and Carole Lombard help to set the standards for screwball comedy with this film, supported by great character actors who seem to be enjoying themselves. The plot twists are preposterous, but who cares ?
Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve is a towering achievement for him as both writer and director. It's insights into these Broadway (read Hollywood) characters, several larger-than-life, could only be written and brought to the screen by someone with deep experience in the theatre and film worlds, and deep insight into human nature. Bette Davis has free rein as an aging diva, while Anne Baxter offers a more controlled performance as an aspiring actress, working her way up the business. Both are great, with Davis the more memorable. Celeste Holm is terrific as the film's moral compass (moral by Broadway / Hollywood standards, of course). The men take second stage (excuse the pun !) in this film, with Gary Merrill, George Sanders and Hugh Marlowe all very good. Marilyn Monroe has a small but very funny role typecast as an aspiring ... Marilyn Monroe. It's full of biting wit, outsized personalities, and the all-too-human proclivity to scheme and plot. I would have given the film even higher marks but for a slightly too abrupt change in Eve's personality.
Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca is a masterpiece. He and his team transformed Daphne Du Maurier's best selling novel into a beautiful, complex and gripping film, full of subtlety and dramatic tension. It's a psychological thriller, a romance, and a murder mystery with well-drawn character portraits of the protagonists and the supporting players too. Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are outstanding.
Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror is a psychological thriller and police whodunit that starts with a jolt in its first frames. Then it cleverly resets to a slow and steady tension that builds through its plot twists to a satisfying climax. Olivia de Havilland plays twin sisters and is on screen for most of the film, doing a great job showing the subtle differences of identical twins that is at the heart of the story. Thomas Mitchell and Lew Ayres hit just the right tone as the police lieutenant and psychology professor, respectively, with a special mention to Ayres for a particularly genuine and convincing performance.
William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident is a powerful indictment of mob rule. It's also a masterclass in movie making for the many characters that are developed over the course of a taut 75 minutes. Wellman, Trotti's script and the actors craft these memorable characters through set-ups / situations, small gestures and brief dialogue. It's a great cast but Henry Fonda is truly outstanding for his rough-and-tumble everyman, totally natural and believable, with some physical tension and a slight chip on his shoulder, but also deep compassion and a very direct and truthful style. One of the great cowboy movies ever.
Francesco Patierno's Naples '44 is an ode to an outstanding, deeply humane book. I've read the book twice, and loved it. I applaud the movie's ambitious structure, the assembly of a mosaic of vignettes to tell its story rather than doing it as a straightforward narrative. I also like its dreamy quality and the interspersing of contemporary shots, archive documentary footage and clips from many fictional films. Despite my admiration, I can't imagine how a viewer who has not read the book could make much sense of it.
William Clemens' Crime by Night is a little gem of a movie. Jerome Cowan and Jane Wyman are a great team of sleuths, their chemistry and riffs on each other reminded me of William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey. As good as Wyman is in this film, she is overshadowed by an omnipotent Jerome Cowan, whose private detective combines serious work with a sly smile and a mild, mocking cynicism that spares no one. The film is a breezy whodunit with an intricate plot, a fast pace and a fine supporting cast. One interesting note is the attire. Despite being filmed in the middle of WW2, the three lead female characters were dressed in stunning fashions, at every moment. Could it be that citizens beleaguered by the war found solace in glamour on the silver screen ?
Simon Langton's The Whistle Blower is a very nicely done spy thriller and family drama. Michael Caine gives a great, nuanced and realistic performance. He's a former military man, now a businessman, and the widowed father of an idealistic analyst for the British spy services. A series of moles has embarrassed the spy masters and they have begun relentlessly eating their own, flouting the law in the process, in a paranoid effort to stop leaks and find traitors. This effort catches Caine's son, played well by Nigel Havers, and Caine's reaction is the heart of the story. The supporting cast is excellent, and features James Fox, Gordon Jackson, Kenneth Colley and John Guilgud. As with the vast majority of spy films since the 1970s, we must accept the premise - it is rather hackneyed and tiresome, isn't it ? - that our side is as evil and untrustworthy as our Cold War enemies.
Godfrey Grayson's The Fake has an interesting premise, great location shooting in London, specifically at the Tate Gallery, and an irrepressible Dennis O'Keefe playing a bull-in-the-china-shop American detective in London. And, it tells its story in an economical 80 minutes. Part of that economy, however, is due to frequent "coincidences" in the screenplay, many of which center on the insurance detective played by Guy Middleton. These begin from the film's first frames, when he unexplainably becomes a Dr. Watson to O'Keefe's Sherlock Holmes. The effect is ultimately annoying. Coleen Gray is radiant and beautiful as ever, but here she doesn't appear to be enjoying herself. She comes across as a reluctant casting choice; this is not one of her better roles. It's a solid sleuthing story.
Despite three great actors - Fred MacMurray, Claire Trevor and Raymond Burr - a clever premise, and nice locations in Mexico, Borderline was a weak film. The biggest problem is that it doesn't know if it wants to be a suspense thriller (most of the film), a comedy (odd scenes seemingly thrown in) or a romance (came on strong at the end, as was expected). I blame the director and screenwriter for this mess. It could have been a much better movie.
Louis Malle's Atlantic City is a dreamy, lyrical and beautiful film made in a gritty, ugly city that is caught between its faded former glory and the promise of renewal and rebirth, thanks to casinos, themselves ugly and corrupting. It's about two people at opposite ends of their lives who cross paths for a few magical days. Burt Lancaster is marvelous as a former underworld errand-boy who still dreams of doing great things. Susan Sarandon is outstanding as a young woman running from a desolate youth in the Canadian prairie and a bad marriage. She's also been cheated by those closest to her. The story and Malle's direction reflect a deep humanity and a tremendous eye for portraying characters through small gestures and production details. Never has such a squalid society been portrayed with such love.
Don Siegel's The Big Steal is a good crime drama. It's an intricate story, told at a fast pace, and the on-location shoot in Mexico lends a nice aura of authenticity to the film that is broken only for a very few process shots. Robert Mitchum is a joy to watch, and has good chemistry with Jane Greer. The two share some snappy dialogue. She radiates intelligence and honesty, and has to cover a wide range here, from surprise and skepticism transformed into belief and loyalty, and finally love, with a fair number of action scenes in between.
In Byron Haskin's Too Late for Tears, Lizabeth Scott has the role of a lifetime as the most fatal of femme fatales, the most seductive of temptresses, and the most cold blooded of criminals, and she is magnificent. Dan Duryea isn't on screen quite as much as Scott, but he also provides a great performance. He's also playing a criminal, as he did often in those year, but here we see a full range on display, from the super tough guy to calculating smoothie to vulnerable fall guy to helpless victim. Arthur Kennedy and Don DeFore are well cast in supporting roles, and Kristine Miller is especially good and believeable in a small but crucIal role, radiating innocence and purity as a counterpoint to what's happening around her. It has a great and intricate story, with a palpable tension right from the first frames, possibly because the "MacGuffin" at the center of these lives and this film was introduced in the opening frames.
Jules Dassin's Brute Force is a bleak, relentless and intricate tale told with outstanding cinematography and dialogue. Burt Lancaster is mesmerizing. The film also made me wonder what criteria the censors used in 1947, because this seems to be more raw than most films before or after it. Brute Force is violent, shows prisoners systematically as the good guys and underdogs, and the prison hierarchy as evil. The film throws in strong political messages as well, just two years after WW2, with an excellent Hume Cronyn becoming a sadistic and violent autocrat that recalled the tyrants that had so recently been defeated.
Henry Hathaway's The Dark Corner is a good crime thriller with lots of evocative NY location shots, a good supporting cast and an intricate plot. Lucille Ball lights up the proceedings every time she's on screen, with her combination of wit, grit and charm. The big downfall is the lead. Mark Stevens just doesn't cut it as a leading man, his acting at times seems forced and overdone.
Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death has a slow and steady burn, just like the protagonist played by Victor Mature. He's a serial criminal with a big heart who tried to turn straight when he became a family man. But Ben Hecht's script has him continually losing out, either through his own mistakes or his shady, unreliable associates. Mature is excellent, and the all-location shooting provides a realistic ambiance. Richard Widmark plays one of the greatest villains in all film, a cackling, psychotic killer, and actors have been copying this performance ever since. Colleen Gray is bright, positive and convincing. The supporting cast is outstanding.
Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends features a great story by Ben Hecht, outstanding art direction, and most of all a great performance by Dana Andrews. He's a stoic, hard cop, seething with rage against criminals and often abusing his power. He's a driven man, but what drives him isn't revealed until late in the film. That kind of restraint seems to be a trademark of Otto Preminger. He is smooth and sometimes subtle, letting his audience figure some things out. This is a gritty tale of New York's underworld and of a man's personal redemption.