Saturday, August 20, 2011

To Catch a Thief (1955)

To Catch a Thief has the distinction of being the first Hitchcock film I ever saw (as a child of 10), so it has a special place in my heart. It's fairly lighthearted as Hitchcocks go and is probably the closest thing to a true whodunit that Hitchcock ever filmed, which makes it a distinctive entry in the canon. Of course, since it stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly and is set in the French Riviera, it fairly reeks of charm and refinement, and when combined with the good story and snappy dialog, it can hardly fail to please viewers looking for an entertaining romp. If you're looking for the heavy drama and real danger of some of Hitchcock's more iconic films, however, you may find this one somewhat lacking.

Cary Grant plays a reformed cat burglar who finds himself in trouble with the law once more when someone starts committing a new string of crimes copying his MO. With the police and all his old friends equally convinced of his guilt, Grant soon discovers that the only way to clear his name would be to catch the real thief himself, and so he sets out on an unlikely quest to beat the criminal at his own game. With the help of a Lloyds insurance agent, Grant insinuates himself into high society so he can be near the people who have jewelry worth stealing. Unfortunately a thrill-seeking socialite (Grace Kelly) uncovers his true identity, but instead of handing him over to the police, she wants to get in the excitement of helping him on a heist. Once she realizes he's innocent, though, she settles instead on scheming with him to catch the real thief.

This was filmed to be a visual spectacular, filmed entirely in Monaco and the French Riviera at a time when on-location shooting was just coming into vogue. Grace Kelly is also as her best as a sometimes-icy socialite yearning for adventure, and of course it was during the filming of this movie that she caught the eye of Prince Ranier of Monaco, whom she would eventually marry. It also features her driving recklessly on precipices not far from the very ones that would claim her life tragically, so it gets points for eerie foreshadowing. Cary Grant is sublime in this picture because he gets to showcase his great physical prowess in addition the charm, sophistication, danger, and exasperation he always portrays so well in his characters.

In all, I rate this film a 7.7.

Buy it on DVD:
To Catch a Thief

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those films that you've probably seen even if you haven't ever watched it. It's an adaptation of the famous Victorian novel of the same name, and has been made into countless stage and screen productions. It's also been parodied relentlessly in film and television for the last fifty years, most famously in Peter Seller's 1979 spoof and the second act of Blake Edwards's The Great Race. Of all its various incarnations, however, this one is generally considered to be the best, and with good reason. A faithful screenplay, and the star power of Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, Raymond Massey, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Astor, and David Niven makes this 1937 Selznick version the one considered absolutely definitive.

The plot is fairly basic, with Ronald Colman playing an English tourist in the (fictional) country of Ruritania, who is distantly related to the monarch of that nation and by an astonishing coincidence looks exactly like him. This proves to be advantageous when the king is drugged and falls comatose on the eve of his coronation, and Colman must take his place or the country will fall prey to the king's evil half-brother (Raymond Massey). The plan appears to go off without a hitch, although Colman instantly becomes smitten with the king's bride-to-be (Madeleine Carroll). Unfortunately Massey's evil henchman (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) stumbles upon the real king while the latter is still incapacitated, and kidnaps him in order to use him as a political leverage, possibly to kill him so Massey can assume the throne. The rest of the film is taken up in the thrilling rescue which includes Colman the infiltrating the castle of Zenda by swimming the moat, climbing the castle walls, and sword-fighting with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

I liken this film to a box of See's Candies: it's junk food, but it's high-quality junk food that tastes really good. The characters are extremely predictable with the bad guys do diabolical you can imagine them twirling their mustaches and the good guys impossible noble even if they do have their foibles (the king, for example, is a bit of a lush). Still, it's well executed, well acted, and has enough action and intrigue to keep the audience entertained the requisite two hours. Fairbanks has so much fun being evil, moreover, that you can't help enjoying his performance even if it is completely over-the-top.

I leave this film with a rating of 7.6.

buy it from Amazon:
The Great RaceThe Prisoner of Zenda (1937 and 1952 Versions) 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Petrified Forest (1936)

**spoiler warnings**

Rare is the film in which Bette Davis plays a likable character. Her stage roles always seemed to mimic the real life hardness for which she is noted, so it is refreshing to find her so appealing in the role of an ingenue. Not only is she fabulous in this movie, though, but her co-stars, Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart, give equally strong performances, making The Petrified Forest extremely memorable despite its depressing ending - sorry if I gave away a major plot point there. This film is also significant because it marks the first major role that Bogart ever played, reprising the part he played on Broadway at the absolute insistence of his good friend Leslie Howard.

Bette Davis plays a poetically-touched waitress working at a rest-stop diner in the Arizona desert. When a disillusioned writer (Leslie Howard) wanders in one day, the two are drawn together as kindred spirits, and  Davis's optimistic ambition to see the world rekindles Howard's long-extinguished faith in humanity. Howard intends to continue on his journey, but the arrival of a dangerous gangster (Humphrey Bogart) prevents him from leaving, as Bogart proceeds to hold the entire diner hostage while he waits for his girlfriend to join him. As the evening wears on and tensions mount, Howard looks at his worthless life and considers how he has nothing to offer Bette Davis, with whom he has fallen in love. He hits upon the idea, however, to name Davis as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy and then letting Bogart kill him, which the surly gangster agrees to do after he makes his rendezvous. The arrival of the law on the scene seems to prevent Howard's quixotic self-sacrifice, and after confessing his love to Davis, he seems to regain to will to live. But in a final act of serendipity, Howard tries to prevent Bogart's escape, and gets gunned down.

There's a strange kind of determinism and nihilism in this movie which makes it difficult to watch. Howard's character has strange premonitions that he will die there in the Petrified Forest, and he seems to think it poetically appropriate because he feels fossilized by his irrelevance and sense of powerlessness. Davis, too, seems to be destined to doff the her mundane surroundings and seek the adventure she longs for, and the achieves this means despite all plot twists, just as Howard achieves his sacrificial death. Howard's gesture is supposed to be noble, but I don't really know how much of a sacrifice it really is because he seems so careless of his life at times. Instead he feels at times like a suicide looking for a place to happen, and even though he seems to regain the will to live near the end, the way he flings himself in front of Bogart in the end feels truly needless because he really has no way of preventing Bogart's escape, and really just stands there and blocks the door before getting shot.

Despite these dismal images, there's also a movement towards searching for a reason to live, mostly depicting in people urging Davis to embrace her dreams. Even Howard has flashes of a rebirth - ironic since he is heading for Phoenix on the way to the pacific ocean - and as I said, his death is supposed to be redemptive because it will enable Davis to do what she wants with her life. Still, the pallor of death hangs so heavily over Howard's character that his rejuvenation seems more like that of the penitent thief on the cross saying, "Lord, remember me in your Kingdom!" than an actual Christ figure. So despite well-drawn characters and outstanding acting, this movie does not leave the audience edified as the best of tragedies do (Shakespeare, for example). It's philosophical examinations, however, bear viewing, however, if only to disagree with them.

I give this film a 7.5 for very strong acting, and an engaging, if not ultimately successful story.

Buy it from Amazon:
The Petrified Forest

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pimpernel Smith (1941)

Lately I've been finding a lot of really remarkable films to review that fly in the face of my general rule that (a) not many good movies were made during the Second World War, and (b) those that deal directly with the conflict are often the worst. This rule should be doubly true for British films, moreover, since that country was so decimated by the conflict. So the fact that Pimpernel Smith is even remotely entertaining, since it is a British film dealing with the war, is something of a minor miracle.

Needless to say, I was extremely apprehensive viewing this movie because it had both the potential to be quite good and, of course, the potential to be abysmal. In it's favor are the facts that it stars Leslie Howard and is a modern retelling of the classic novel The Scarlet Pimpernel. Against it is the fact that it is a war film, which means some really obvious pro-war rhetoric - some would say propaganda. In addition the lack of resources in terms of actors, many of whom joined up, and supplies makes a lot of war films look amateurish as well.

Howard, of course, had already starred in the 1934 adaptation of the The Scarlet Pimpernel, and cut a very dashing figure as Sir Percy Blakeney, so he seemed an obvious choice for the Blakeney character in the remake. Of course he doesn't disappoint in this version either, and really almost carries it single-handedly, especially since he was also the producer and director.

In this re-imagining, Howard plays Professor Smith, an eccentric Cambridge don who smuggles enemies of the state out of pre-war Germany under the guise of doing archaeological digs on early Aryan civilization. This immediately gave me the delicious idea, "Mild-mannered professor by day and action hero by night? Sounds like an early version of Indiana Jones." With the Nazis furiously trying to uncover his identity, Smith returns to Germany with a group of students who are unaware of the true purpose for his trip. They discover the truth, however, when a narrow escape leaves their beloved professor wounded, and quickly join his cause. Then, there's the Marguerite character, blackmailed by the Nazis into uncovering Smith's identity. She pegs him immediately, to the incredulity of the Nazis, who can't conceive how anyone as innocuous as Professor Smith could spearhead such daring rescues. She changes her tune when she realizes that Smith could deliver her father, but when the Nazis realize her duplicity, Smith ends up having to rescue her too.

The film does a good job of balancing the nationalistic rhetoric and still telling an entertaining story. I can't say this film is on the level of Casablanca, but then, what is? I commend it for a laugh-out-loud funny seen in which a bunch of Nazis trying to understand English humor and being absolutely baffled by P.G. Wodehouse and Lewis Carroll. Howard sparkles in all of his scenes, laconically brilliant in professorial mode, and not so overly heroic to defy credulity. Perhaps the one serious blight is the one American student, not because there's anything wrong with the character, but because the actor couldn't do an American accent to save his soul; instead he sounds vaguely Welsh, possibly Scottish, which is quite disconcerting (in fact it took me half an hour to figure out that he was supposed to be from the U.S.). I was also impressed with how well they mirrored key points of the novel without sticking so close to the source material that it seemed like a mere modernization.

I give this film a 7.2, quite high considering its a British-made war film.