Cleaning Out The DVR #25: The Maltese Falcon (dir by John Huston)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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I would love to see a remake of The Maltese Falcon with Bill Murray in the role of Sam Spade.  Well, maybe not the Bill Murray of today because he’s getting a little bit too old to play a hard-boiled private detective who is as good with his fists as his brain.  Instead, I’m thinking more of Lost In Translation era Bill Murray, when he was no longer young but could still probably beat up any sniveling punk who came at him with a gun.

Now, that may sound crazy to some but think about it.  Bill Murray is one of the great deadpan snarkers and so is Sam Spade.  Last night, when I watched the famous 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon (the story was filmed twice before, once with Bette Davis as the femme fatale), I was struck by how much of the film really was a comedy.  It may have been a murder mystery that featured death and betrayal and a lot of people getting beaten up but, ultimately, The Maltese Falcon is really about Sam Spade reacting to all of the crazy and strange people around him.  No matter how weird things get, Spade always responds with a smirk and a quip.  It’s a role that, at times, seems to be tailor-made for an actor like Bill Murray.

Bill Murray wasn’t around in 1941 but fortunately, Humphrey Bogart was.  Humphrey Bogart may have grown up wealthy and attended private schools but, on screen, nobody was tougher than Humphrey Bogart and nobody was better at delivering sarcastic, snark-filled dialogue.  After spending years as a villainous supporting actor, Humphrey Bogart got his first starring role when he played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.  His performance, of course, would set the standard by which all future cinematic private eyes would be judged.

And, of course, Spade was tough and he was cynical and he has that wonderful moment at the end of the film where he explains that nobody’s going to make a “sap” out of him.  But for me, Bogart’s best moments come when Spade is alone and thinking.  It’s at those times that Spade suddenly becomes a human being.  A slight smirk comes to his lips, almost as if he’s sharing a private joke with the audience.  You can tell that he’s thinking to himself, “Can you believe how weird my life is?”

And it is indeed a weird life.  The film opens with Spade’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), being murdered.  The police believe that Archer was murdered by a man named Thursby and that Thursby was subsequently murdered by Spade.  Spade, however, suspects that both Archer and Thursby were killed by his latest client, a woman who introduced herself as Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor).  Except, of course, that’s not her real name.  Her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and, as she admits to Spade, Thursby was her partner.  She claims that Thursby must have murdered Archer but that she doesn’t know who could have possibly killed Thursby.

What’s particularly interesting about all this is that no one really seems to be that upset about Archer’s death.  Spade’s main motivation for investigating the murder is to clear his name and there are several lines of dialogue that reveal how little regard he had for Miles.  In fact, when Archer’s widow (Gladys George) suggests that Spade might be Archer’s killer, you can understand why she might think that.  But then again, that’s the world of The Maltese Falcon.  Only the tough survive.  Getting sentimental or allowing yourself to care is the biggest mistake you can make.

The murders are connected to the hunt for a valuable statue of a bird.  (This is the famous Maltese Falcon of the title.)  As Spade tries to clear his name in the two murders, he also finds himself getting caught up with a strange group of treasure hunters.  There’s the obsequious Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre).  There’s the ruthless “fat man,” Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet).  And then there’s Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), Gutman’s young henchman who spends the entire film trying to convince everyone that he’s tougher than he appears.  Wilmer is a born patsy.  Whenever Spade gets annoyed, he beats up Wilmer.  And he usually smiles afterward.

Along with being the directorial debut of John Huston, The Maltese Falcon was also one of the first great film noirs.  It’s one of the most influential films ever made and, even seen today, it’s a lot of fun.  You really can’t go wrong with Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Cook all in the same movie.  Bill Murray may never get a chance to play Sam Spade but that’s okay.  Humphrey Bogart’s the only Sam Spade we really need.

The Maltese Falcon was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to How Green Was My Valley, a film that literally seems to take place in an entirely different universe from The Maltese Falcon.

Cleaning Out The DVR #24: Cries and Whispers (dir by Ingmar Bergman)


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The time is the 19th century.  The country is Sweden.  The setting is a mansion that is decorated with red carpet, red walls, and almost blindly white statues.  But beyond that setting, the 1973 film Cries and Whispers is really set in the hearts and minds of four women.  One of them is selfless.  Two of them are bitter and uncaring.  And one of them is slowly dying.

Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is the one who is dying.  She spends her time laying in bed and screaming in pain.  A doctor (Erland Josephson) provides her with no hope and can only promise that the end will come soon and a priest (Anders Ek) coldly goes about planning for her funeral and offering up empty promises of a final reward.  Occasionally, through her diary and flashbacks to her youth, we get glimpses of who Agnes was before her life become dominating by her impending death.

Agnes’s sisters have come to the house to wait out her death.  Though they’ve arrived to provide comfort, neither is capable of it.  The youngest sister, Maria (Liv Ullman), was her mother’s favorite and has grown up to be coldly self-centered.  Through flashbacks, we see the details of her affair with Agnes’s doctor.  When Maria’s husband (Henning Moritzen) reacts to her infidelity by stabbing himself, Maria can only dispassionately watch.  Meanwhile, the oldest sister, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) has grown up to be bitter and sexually repressed.  In a truly shocking scene, Karin mutilates her vagina with a shard of glass and, after smearing the blood on her face, lies in bed and smirks at her husband.

In the end, only Anna (Kari Sylwan) can provide Agnes with any comfort.  Anna is Agnes’s maid.  Deeply religious and mourning the loss of her own daughter, only Anna is willing to reach out and hold Agnes while Agnes is in pain.  And, after Agnes dies, Anna seems to be the only one who shows any real grief.

There are depressing movies and then there’s Cries and Whispers.  Cries and Whispers is such an emotionally raw and dark movie that it was difficult for me to watch.  It’s also difficult to review because just thinking about the movie brings up so many emotions.  It’s just such a well-made and extremely painful movie.

It’s also an Ingmar Bergman film and that’s fortunate because Bergman somehow had an instinct for how to keep audiences watching even when the images on screen were amazingly painful.  Visually, Cries and Whispers is as beautiful as it is thematically cold.  By emphasizing the color red (not only is the entire house decorated in red but scenes often end by fading to red as opposed to black), Bergman makes the audience feel as if they truly have been transported into the human soul.  Red, after all, is the color of blood and life.

And really, Cries and Whispers is one of those films that makes you wonder what exactly the point of life is.  While the dream-like flashbacks give us clues as to how the three sisters became who they are, they also suggest that it really doesn’t matter.  In the end, regardless of whether they’re in love or alone or happy or sad, they’re all going to die and that’s going to be it.  All stories and issues will be left unresolved.

And, in the end, the best we can hope for is that someone like Anna will mourn us.

Cries and Whispers is one of the few foreign language films to be nominated for best picture.  It’s also the only Ingmar Bergman film to be so nominated (though Bergman had more success in the Best Foreign Language Film category).  It lost to The Sting, a far happier film.

Cleaning Out The DVR #23: The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir by Michael Curtiz)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Flamboyant.  Athletic.  Joyous.  Determined.  Handsome.  Outspoken.  Bigger than life.  Revolutionary.  Anarchist.  Sexy.  Libertarian.  Is there any doubt why Errol Flynn remains the definitive Robin Hood?

And. for that matter, is there any doubt why the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood remains not only the definitive Robin Hood film but also one of the most influential action films in history?

The Adventures of Robin Hood tells the story that we’re all familiar with.  The King of England, Richard The Lionhearted (Ian Hunter), is captured while returning from the Crusades.  His brother, King John (Claude Rains, in full autocratic villain mode), usurps the throne while Richard is gone and immediately raises taxes.  He claims that he’s only doing this to raise the money to set Richard free.  Of course, the real reason is that John is a greedy tyrant.

The only nobleman with the courage to openly oppose John is Sir Robin of Locksely (Errol Flynn).  Sir Robin protects his fellow citizens from John’s main henchman, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone, also in full autocratic villain mode).  In fact, Robin is so brave that, on multiple occasions, he even enters Sir Guy’s castle so that he can specifically tell King John and Sir Guy that he has no use for their laws.  This, of course, always leads to Robin having to make a dramatic escape while arrows flies and swords are unsheathed all around.

And through it all, Robin Hood keeps smiling and laughing.  He’s a wonderfully cheerful revolutionary.  He may be fighting a war against a ruthless and unstoppable enemy and he may be the most wanted man in England but Robin is determined to have fun.  One need only compare Robin to his humorless foes to see the difference between freedom and bureaucracy.

(We could use Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood today, though I suspect our government would just blow him up with a drone and then issue a statement about how, by stealing money from the rich and giving it to the poor, Robin was keeping the government from being able to rebuild bridges and repair roads.)

When Robin isn’t exposing the foolishness of organized government, he’s hanging out in Sherwood Forest.  He’s recruiting valuable allies like Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.)  He’s playing constant pranks and promoting revolution and, to his credit, he’s a lot more fun to listen to than that guy from V For Vendetta.  He’s also romancing Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) and good for him.  Two beautiful people deserve to be together.

Even better, he’s doing it in glorious Technicolor!  There’s a lot of great things about The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The action scenes are exciting.  The music is thrilling.  The film is perfectly cast.  Errol Flynn may not have been a great actor but he was a great Robin Hood.  But what I really love about the film is just the look of it.  We tend to take color for granted so it’s interesting to watch a film like The Adventures of Robin Hood, one that was made at a time when color film was something of a novelty.  For those of us who spend a lot of time talking about how much we love old school black-and-white, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film that says, “Hey, color can be great too!”

But what I mostly love about The Adventures of Robin Hood is just the pure joy of the film.  Just compare this Robin Hood to the grimly tedious version played by Russell Crowe.

(True, nobody in The Adventures of Robin Hood shouts, “I declare him to be …. AN OUTLAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWW!”  Actually, now that I think about it, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood would have worked much better if Oscar Isaac and Russell Crowe had switched roles.)

The Adventures of Robin Hood was nominated for best picture and it probably should have won.  However, the Oscar went to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.