30 Days of Noir #7: The Sniper (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


Halfway through the chilling 1952 film, The Sniper, there’s a scene in which a woman is seen standing on the rooftop of a San Francisco apartment building.  She’s nonchalantly hanging laundry.  When she steps to the side, we suddenly see that there’s a man standing on the next rooftop over.  And he’s holding a rifle.

Fortunately, in this case, the man is a policeman.  He’s one of several cops who have been ordered to stand on rooftops with their weapons drawn and to keep an eye on the city below.  There’s a killer on the loose and the city is demanding that the police capture him.  And yet, even with a city that’s caught in the grip of fear and even with heavily armed men watching everything going on in the streets, life goes on.  People go to bars.  People go to work. Couples stroll in the park.  And one woman hangs her laundry to dry on the rooftop of an apartment building.

Suddenly, the policeman spots someone on another rooftop, a man who isn’t supposed to be there.  He’s a young guy, carrying what looks like a rifle.  The police quickly rush to the rooftop where they arrest the young man.  Have they caught the sniper who has been terrorizing San Francisco?

The police think that they have their man but we know that they don’t.  We know that the sniper is a guy named Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz).  Eddie is a delivery man.  He’s handsome but, from the minute we first see him, we can tell that there’s something off about him.  He stumbles through life, keeping his head down and rarely speaking to anyone.  The few times he does attempt to smile, it’s painfully awkward.  He’s someone who is struggling to convince the people of San Francisco that he’s one of them but the more he tries, the more of an outsider he seems to be.  In fact, the only time that we see Eddie truly happy is when he goes to a carnival and comes across a dunk tank.  Over and over again, he throws a baseball and cause the woman inside to be submerged in cold water.

At first, Eddie tries to deal with his bad thoughts by deliberately burning his hand on an electric stove.  When he goes to the emergency room, he asks the attending doctor why he would do something like that but the doctor is soon distracted by another patient.  With his hand bandaged, Eddie goes on a shooting spree, targeting brunette women.

This dark film is fairly evenly divided, between Eddie, the cops that are trying to catch him, and the psychiatrist who tries to explain him.  Not surprisingly, the cops, led by the appropriately named Lt. Kafka (Adolphe Menjou), aren’t particularly interested in what makes the sniper tick.  They just want to get him off the street.  However, Dr. James Kent (Richard Kiley) is convinced that the only way to stop not only this killer but others is to understand what’s going on inside of his mind.  The differences between Kafka and Kent’s approaches are most obvious in a scene in which every registered sex offender in San Francisco is paraded into a squad room full of jeering cops.  While the detectives taunt the offenders that they know, the offender that they don’t know prepares to kill yet again.

The Sniper was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated (and superficially similar) Crossfire.  This was Dmytryk’s first film after his career was temporarily derailed by his refusal to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee.  (He later changed his mind and named names while testifying about his time as a member of the Community Party.)  Interestingly enough, top-billed Adolphe Menjou was one of the leaders of the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a prominent supporter of the blacklist that Dmytryk had narrowly escaped.

Filmed in a black-and-white, documentary style, The Sniper is a chilling and disturbing film.  When Eddie stalks through the city at night, the dark shadows that he casts against the walls of empty alleyways and closed storefronts serve to remind us that men like Eddie could be lurking anywhere, unseen and unknown.  During the day scenes, the harshly bright lighting reminds us of just how vulnerable we are.  If the night provides too many places to hide, the day provides too few.  Arthur Franz gives a disturbingly credible performance as Eddie.  While he plays Eddie as being obviously troubled, he also suggests how someone like Eddie has managed to survive without getting exposed.  Menjou is properly cynical as the world weary Kafka while Richard Kiley brings some needed passion and anger to the film’s most talky scenes.  The film ends on a note of melancholy ambiguity, leaving it to us to make up our own mind about how to deal with the Eddie Millers of the world.

Still Funny After All These Years: Harold Lloyd in THE MILKY WAY (Paramount 1936)


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Harold Lloyd was one of the “Big 3” comedy stars of the Silent Era, right up there with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in popularity. I’ve viewed and enjoyed comic gems like SAFETY LAST and THE FRESHMAN, and some of his hilarious shorts. His bespectacled, energetic character was wildly popular in the Roaring Twenties, but with the advent of sound and The Great Depression, audiences turned away from Harold’s brand of comedy. Recently, I watched 1936’s THE MILKY WAY and wondered why they did, because Harold Lloyd was just as funny as ever in it, and the film is just as good as any screwball comedy of the era.

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Harold plays Burleigh Sullivan, a milquetoast milkman constantly in hot water for failing to meet his quotas. When a pair of drunken ruffians try to hit on his sister, meek Burleigh is forced to come to her defense. A fight breaks out, and Burleigh emerges from the pile victorious. The…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #35: Stage Door (dir by Gregory La Cava)


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

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The 1937 film Stage Door is a great example of a unique genre of American film, the Katharine Hepburn Gets Humbled genre.

In the 1930s, Katharine Hepburn went through a period of time where she was considered to be “box office poison.”  She was undeniably talented but it was obvious that the studios weren’t sure how to showcase that talent.  They put her in high-brow films that often did not have much appeal to audiences.  As well, the press hated her.  Katharine Hepburn was outspoken, she was confident, she was a nonconformist, and, too many, her refusal to do interviews and sign autographs marked her as a snob.  Very few people wanted to see a movie starring Katharine Hepburn and therefore, very few people were willing to make a movie starring Katharine Hepburn.

(Interestingly enough, as I sit here typing this, another KH — Katharine Heigl — is pretty much in the exact same situation, with the main difference being that Hepburn was a far more interesting actress.)

Fortunately, Katharine Hepburn was smart enough to recognize the problem and she started to appear in films like Stage Door.  In Stage Door, she essentially played a character who mirrored the public’s perception of her.  Terry Randall is a snobbish and pretentious aspiring actress who comes to New York to pursue her career and moves into a theatrical rooming house.  At first, her attitude makes her unpopular with the other actresses living in the house.  But, as the film progresses, Terry slowly starts to let down her defenses and reveals that she’s just as insecure, neurotic, and vulnerable as everyone else.  She also proves herself to be willing to stand up to manipulative producers and condescending directors.  When she’s cast in her first Broadway show, it turns out that the show is being financed by her father and his hope is that she’ll do such a bad job and be so humiliated that she’ll give up acting.  And, at first, it appears that Terry will be terrible.  During rehearsals, she is stiff and mannered.  (Hepburn was actually quite brave to portray Terry as being such a believably bad actress.)

Of course, Terry isn’t the only actress at the rooming house who has issues to deal with.  For instance, Judy Canfield (Lucille Ball) has to choose between pursuing her career or getting married and starting a family.  Kay (Andrea Leeds) is a once successful actress who is now struggling to find roles, can’t pay her bills, and has become suicidal as a result.  And then there’s Jean (Ginger Rogers), Terry’s cynical roommate and frequent enemy and occasional friend.  Jean is falling in love with Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), the lecherous producer of Terry’s play.

Stage Door is a wonderfully entertaining mix of melodrama and comedy.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll really find yourself hoping that all of the actresses at the rooming house will have their dreams come true.  While the film is dominated by Hepburn and Rogers, it truly is an ensemble piece.  Not only does the cast include Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and Andrea Leeds (giving the film’s best and most poignant performance) but the great dancer Ann Miller appears as Jean’s equally cynical best friend.  Stage Door may be 79 years old but it’s aged wonderfully.

At the box office, Stage Door was a modest success and it directly led to Hepburn being cast in the classic screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby.  Stage Door was nominated for best picture but it lost to The Life of Emile Zola.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: A Farewell to Arms (dir by Frank Borzage)


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Reportedly, Ernest Hemingway hated the 1932 film adaptation of his great novel, A Farewell To Arms.  The novel, of course, tells the story of ambulance driver Frederic Henry (played in the film by Gary Cooper), his service in World War I, and his doomed love affair with an English nurse named Catherine (played by the very American Helen Hayes).  The novel was acclaimed for being tough and unsentimental.  The film is the exact opposite, revealing itself to be more typical of the work of director Frank Borzage than Ernest Hemingway.

How romantic was Borzage’s adaptation of A Farewell to Arms?  It was so romantic that it even changed the novel’s famous ending.  The novel ended with Catherine dying and Frederic Henry walking away, alone and in the rain.  The film, however, ended with Catherine miraculously recovering.  Never mind, of course, that having Catherine survive pretty much defeated the entire purpose of the story.  What was important was to give American audiences a happy ending!

However, European audiences got a more downbeat ending.  In the European version, Catherine does die.  After she dies, Frederic picks up her body and looks up into heaven, which is certainly far more dramatic (and, in its way, sentimentally spiritual) than anything to be found in Hemingway’s novel.  If, like me, you see A Farewell To Arms on TCM, you’ll see the European ending.

So, yes, I can understand why Hemingway would have hated this film.  But I have to admit that I rather enjoyed it.  The film adaptation makes for terrible Hemingway but it’s great Borzage.  Borzage specialized in making grand, lyrical, and sweeping romantic melodramas and that’s what his version of A Farewell To Arms truly is.  Helen Hayes may not be convincingly English and Gary Cooper may be a bit overly earnest for a Hemingway hero but they both look good together and they have great chemistry.  (Plus, Adolphe Menjou gives a good supporting performance as Frederic’s best friend.)  As a director, Borzage keeps the story moving at a steady pace and plays up the romance in every single scene.  There’s a great sequence that’s filmed entirely from the wounded Frederic’s point-of-view as he’s brought into a hospital and looked over by a series of officious nurses.  We see everything through Frederic’s eyes until Catherine finally enters the room and kisses him.  Only then do we see Frederic and Catherine together, leaving us with no doubt that these two belong together.  A Farewell To Arms may not be a great literary adaptation but it is a great cinematic romance.

A Farewell To Arms was nominated for best picture but it won to a largely forgotten film called Cavalcade.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #9: A Star is Born (dir by William Wellman)


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“Hello everybody.  This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

— Mrs. Norman Maine (Janet Gaynor) in A Star Is Born (1937)

When I first saw the red neon of the opening credits of the 1937 best picture nominee, A Star Is Born, I thought to myself, “This is a real movie movie.”  And I was so impressed by that thought that I even jotted it down in my review notes and now, looking down at my notes, I’m struggling to figure out how to explain just what exactly it was that I meant.

I think that what I was trying to say, in my own way, was that, when we think of a typical big budget Hollywood romance, A Star Is Born is the type of film of which we tend to think.  It’s a big, glossy film that is shot in vibrant technicolor and which features a self-sacrificing woman (Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor) falling in love with a self-destructive but ultimately noble man (Norman Maine, played by Fredric March).  It’s a film that has romance, humor, and tragedy.  It’s a film that’s designed to make you laugh, cry, and ultimately fall in love.  It’s pure melodrama, the type of film that would probably be made for Lifetime today.  (And, in fact, it has been remade for Lifetime a number of times, just never under the title A Star Is Born.)

It’s a familiar story that, if I may indulge in a cliché, as old as the movies.  Esther is a girl who lives on a farm in North Dakota and she wants to be a star, despite being told by her aunt that she need to start concentrating on finding a man and having children.  Esther’s grandmother (Fay Robson) tells Eleanor to pursue her dreams and loans her some money to take with her to Hollywood.

With stars in her eyes, Esther goes out to California and deals with rejection after rejection.  (She does, however, manage to rent out an apartment.  The weekly rent is $6.00.)  Esther does befriend an assistant director (Andy Devine) who gets Esther a job as a waitress at a party.  As Esther serves the food, she imitates everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Mae West, all in an attempt to get noticed.

And, amazingly enough, it works!  She meets film star, Norman Maine.  With Norman’s help, she gets her first screen test and, after her name is changed to Vicki Lester, Esther is put under contract to a studio.  She and Norman also fall in love and soon end up married.  However, while Vicki Lester is rising to stardom, Norman is descending into irrelevance.  He’s an alcoholic who has managed to alienate almost everyone in Hollywood.  When Vicki wins her first award, Norman shows up at the ceremony drunk and destroys what little is left of his career.

Will Vicki be able to save Norman from his demons?  And will she be able to do so without destroying her own career?

Well, you probably already know the answer.  A Star Is Born is one of those stories that everyone seems to know, regardless of whether they’ve actually seen the film or not.  (And even if they haven’t seen the 1937 version, chances are that they’ve seen one of the many remakes or ripoffs.)  The original Star Is Born is an undeniably familiar and old-fashioned movie but it holds up as a celebration of both old Hollywood glamour and a heartfelt romance.

And it’s in the public domain!

Watch the original A Star is Born below!

 

 

Shattered Politics #9: State of the Union (dir by Frank Capra)


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“Politicians have remained professionals only because the voters have remained amateurs!” — State of the Union (1948)

Does anyone remember the Americans Elect fiasco of 2012?

Americans Elect was an organization set up by a bunch of businesspeople, attorneys, and out-of-office politicians.  Their stated goal was to challenge the political establishment, shake up the two-party system, and elect a president.  The idea was that the party would hold a nationwide primary.  Any registered U.S. voter could go online and cast their vote on what they thought should be in the party’s platform and who they thought should be the Americans Elect presidential candidate.  Whoever won this nationwide primary would be required to 1) run on the platform and 2) pick a vice presidential candidate from the opposite party.

And all would be right with the world, right?

Right.

Anyway, I did register as an American Elect delegate, just because I was curious to see who was getting votes in the nationwide primary and who wasn’t.  (And yes, I did cast a vote.  I voted for Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia.)  Looking over the site, I saw that all of the usual suspects were getting votes — Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump, and even Barack Obama.  None of the big vote getters were exactly nonpartisan or independent figures.  With the possible exception of Ron Paul, all of them were members of the very establishment that Americans Elect was claiming to challenge.

Anyway, Americans Elect ended up nominating no one for President and, as we all know, the 2012 election came down to choosing between two candidates who both received money from the same millionaires and, in the end, the status quo was upheld.

To be honest, everyone should have realized that Americans Elect was a sham as soon as the New York Times printed a column praising the effort.  Any truly independent political organization would never be praised by the New York Times.  Instead, like most so-called independent political organizations, Americans Elect was just a case of certain members of the establishment slumming.

So, the lesson of American Elect would seem to be that any attempt to run outside of the mainstream will, in the end, simply lead you back to the mainstream.  That was an expensive lesson for all of the volunteers who devoted their time to getting Americans Elect on the ballot in 28 states.  It was a lesson that they could have learned much more easily by watching the 1948 film, State of the Union.

In State of the Union, newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) wants to make her lover, Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), President of the United States.  Grant is a no-nonsense, plain-spoken businessman who is quick to explain that he loves and cares about his country but that he hates partisan politics.  (In many ways, it’s impossible not to compare Grant to … well, to just about every single wealthy businessman who has ever run for public office while claiming to essentially be nonpolitical.  The big difference is that Grant actually means it.)  However, by subtly appealing to both his ego and his patriotism, Kay convinces Grant to run.  With the help of sleazy Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) and the sardonic Spike McManus (Van Johnson), Kay uses her money and her newspapers to turn Grant into a viable candidate.

The only problem is that Grant is separated from his wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) and, since this movie was made in the 1940s, everyone knows that Grant has to be seen as being a family man if he’s going to be elected.  For the election, Mary and Grant pretend to be happily married.

As the primary season continues, Grant finds himself being more and more manipulated by Kay and Jim.  Eventually, Grant is forced to make a decision between his campaign and his integrity…

Following Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Meet John Doe, State of the Union was the third part of director Frank Capra’s political trilogy.  Based on a play (which, itself, was supposedly inspired by the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie), State of the Union never quite escapes its stage-bound origins.  Add to that, the film was probably a bit more shocking when it was first released in 1948.  In 2015, we’re used to idea of politicians being controlled by money.  But, in 1948, audiences were perhaps a little bit more innocent.

But, that said, State of the Union is still an entertaining film.  Needless to say, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn have a wonderful chemistry together and Hepburn gets a great drunk scene.  (Hepburn had such an aristocratic presence that it’s always fun to watch her do comedy.)  Angela Lansbury also does well, playing a character who could very well grow up to be the role she played in The Manchurian Candidate.

67 years after it was first released, State of the Union remains an entertaining film that makes some good and still relevant points.  In 2016, when you’re tempted to get involved with the latest version of Americans Elect, watch State of the Union instead.

Lisa Marie Looks At The Front Page (dir. by Lewis Milestone)


As part of my efforts to watch every film ever nominated for best picture, I recently watched 1931’s The Front Page (which lost to Cimarron, the first western to ever win best picture). 

The Front Page, which is based on a broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, is the story of Chicago newspaper editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) and his favorite reporter, Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien).  Hildy is planning on retiring from the newspaper business so he can get married and take a job in advertising.  Walter is determined to keep his star reporter.  Walter’s attempts to keep Hildy from quitting are played out against a larger background of civil corruption, cynical reporters, and an escaped death row inmate who ends up hiding out at the newspaper. 

It’s odd to watch a film like The Front Page today.  It’s not just the fact that the movie is technically primitive but that the film is such a product of its time and a lot has changed since 1931.  This is one of those old films where African-Americans are continually referred to as being “colored” and the modern-day audience cringes in discomfort and tries to figure out the correct way to react.  As a reviewer, I guess I’m supposed to explain how you should react but I really can’t say.  Personally, I look at a film like this as a reflection of its time and the casual, unthinking racism that was a part of the culture back then.  Then again, I’m not the one being called “a pickaninny.”  This is also another one of those old films where women are presented as distractions and the only work that’s worth doing is man’s work.  Oddly enough, the sexism didn’t surprise me as much as the racism.  Then again, sexism is still socially acceptable while our modern, patriarchal society now insists that people, at the very least, pretend not to be racist.

Still, as dated as many of the film’s attitudes may be, the movie’s cynicism and it’s portrayal of journalists as essentially being a bunch of biased, blood-sucking leeches does give the film a slightly more contemporary feel than most films from the 30s.  As Hildy and Walter, Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou are both well cast and the rest of the film’s characters are played by a strong collection of character actors.  A surprisingly large amount of the cynical one-liners still work and, once you get used to the film’s pre-CGI style of filmmaking, it occasionally show some genuine visual flair.

Personally, I think that The Front Page makes a lot more sense once you acknowledge the unstated fact that Walter and Hildy are former lovers.  Hollywood realized the same thing because The Front Page was later remade as His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell taking over the Hildy Johnson role.

Anyway, for the curious, here’s The Front Page