Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Don’t Bother To Knock (dir by Roy Ward Baker)


(I am currently attempting to clean out my DVR.  I recorded the 1952 film Don’t Bother To Knock off of FXM on April 3rd.)

Welcome to the McKinley Hotel in New York City!  The McKinley is a nice place, though it’s no Grand Budapest Hotel.  Presumably, the McKinley was named after the late President William McKinley.  While I’m sure that McKinley would have appreciated the gesture, I don’t know how he would feel about all the melodrama that’s occurring behind closed doors.

For instance, there’s Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft, making her screen debut).  Lyn sings in the hotel bar and, though she might seem to be cynical and tough, she actually has a big heart.  In fact, she cares so much about humanity that she broke up with her longtime boyfriend, Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), because he doesn’t seem to have a heart at all.  Of course, she broke up with Jed by sending him a letter.  When Jed checks into the hotel and tracks her down in the bar, he has questions about their breakup and he wants answers that won’t require any reading.  She tells him that he’s not capable of caring about anyone so why should she waste her time on him?  Then she sings a love song because that’s her job.

As for Jed, he’s kind of a jerk in the way that most men tend to be in movies from the 1950s.  He’s an airline pilot who served overseas during World War II and spent a year living in England.  He’s tough and he’s cynical and now, he’s single.  He’s also got a room in a hotel for the night.

And then there’s Peter and Ruth Jones (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle), who have a function to attend in the hotel ballroom but who don’t have anyone to look after their ten year-old daughter, Bunny (Donna Corcoran).  Fortunately, the hotel’s elevator operator, Eddie (Elisha Cook, Jr.), has a niece named Nell (Marilyn Monroe).  Nell is quiet and shy and needs the money.  She’ll be more than willing to babysit!

Of course, the only problem with Nell is that she’s a little unstable.  This becomes obvious when she’s left alone with Bunny and promptly says that, if Bunny isn’t careful, something bad might happen to one of her toys.  Inside the apartment, Nell is impressed by all the pretty things owned by Ruth.  She tries on her jewelry.  She sprays her perfume in the air.  She puts on Nell’s negligee and looks at herself in the mirror.  Eddie is not amused when he discovers what Nell’s been doing.  If she wants all of this stuff, he tells her, she needs to marry someone rich.  That’s not bad advice but the only problem is that Nell is currently single.  She’s been single ever since her boyfriend died in a plane crash.  In fact, Nell was so upset by his death that she even tried to commit suicide afterward.

From his room, Jed has a direct view of Nell trying on Ruth’s clothes.  When he and Nell spot each other, Nell invites him over.  She tells Jed that she’s a guest at the hotel and that Bunny is her daughter.  Jed can immediately tell that there’s something strange about Nell.  Nell, meanwhile, thinks that Jed is her dead boyfriend.  Meanwhile, Bunny is helpless in her room…

Clocking in at a brisk 72 minutes, Don’t Bother To Knock feels less like a movie and more like a one-act play or maybe even an adaptation of an old television production.  (After watching the movie, I was shocked to discover that it was based on neither.)  Seen today, it’s mostly memorable for featuring Marilyn Monroe’s first true starring role.  After appearing in small roles in several films (including All About Eve), Don’t Bother To Knock was not only Marilyn’s shot at stardom but also her first dramatic performance.  Reportedly basing her performance on her troubled mother, Marilyn is sympathetic and almost painfully vulnerable.  Her scenes with Elisha Cook, Jr. are especially charged, full of a subtext that will probably be easier for modern audiences to spot than it was for audiences in 1952.  Marilyn gave an incredibly poignant performance and she is the main reason to watch Don’t Bother To Knock.

Film Review: The Hindenburg (dir by Robert Wise)


80 years ago, on May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship, exploded in the air over New Jersey.  The disaster was not only covered live by radio reporter Herbert Morrison (whose cry of “Oh the humanity!” continues to be parodied to this day) but it was also one of the first disasters to be recorded on film.  Looking at the footage of the Hindenburg exploding into flame and sinking to the ground, a mere skeleton of what it once was, it’s hard to believe that only 36 people died in the disaster.  The majority of those who died were crew members, most of whom lost their lives while helping passengers off of the airship.  (Fortunately, the Hindenburg was close enough to the ground that many of the passengers were able to escape by simply jumping.)

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of speculation about what led to the Hindenburg (which has successfully completed 63 flights before the disaster) exploding.  The most commonly accepted explanation was that it was simply an act of God, the result of either lightning or improperly stored helium.  Apparently, there was no official evidence found to suggest that sabotage was involved but, even back in 1937, people loved conspiracy theories.

And really, it’s not totally implausible to think that the Hindenburg was sabotaged.  The Hindenburg was making its first trans-Atlantic flight and it was viewed as being a symbol of Nazi Germany.  One of the ship’s passengers, Captain Ernest Lehman, was coming to the U.S. in order to lobby Congress to give Germany helium for their airships.  With Hitler regularly bragging about the superiority of German industry, the theory was that an anti-Nazi crewman or passengers planted a bomb on the Hindenburg.  Since no individual or group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, the theory continues that the saboteur must have perished in the disaster.

At the very least, that’s the theory put forward by a film that I watched earlier today, the 1975 disaster movie, The Hindenburg.

A mix of historical speculation and disaster film melodrama, The Hindenburg stars George C. Scott as Col. Franz Ritter, a veteran of the German air force who is assigned to travel on the Hindenburg and protect it from saboteurs.  Ritter is a Nazi but, the film argues, he’s a reluctant and disillusioned Nazi.  Just a few weeks before the launch of the airship, his teenage son was killed while vandalizing a synagogue.  Ritter is a patriot who no longer recognizes his country and George C. Scott actually does a pretty good job portraying him.  (You do have to wonder why a seasoned veteran of the German air force would have a gruff, slightly mid-Atlantic accent but oh well.  It’s a 70s disaster film.  These things happen.)

Ritter is assigned to work with Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), a member of the Gestapo who is working undercover as the Hindenburg’s photographer.  Tt soon becomes obvious that he is as much a fanatic as Ritter is reluctant.  Vogel is a sadist, convinced that every Jewish passenger is secretly a saboteur.  Thinnes is chilling in the role.  What makes him especially frightening is not just his prejudice but his casual assumption that everyone feels the same way that he does.

And yet, as good as Scott and Thinnes are, the rest of the cast is rather disappointing.  The Hindenburg features a large ensemble of actors, all playing characters who are dealing with their own privates dramas while hoping not to burn to death during the final 15 minutes of the film.  Unfortunately, even by the standards of a typical 70s disaster film, the passengers are thinly drawn.  I liked Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as two con artists but that was mostly because Meredith and Auberjonois are so charming that they’re fun to watch even if they don’t have anything to do.  Anne Bancroft has one or two good scenes as a German baroness and Robert Clary does well as a vaudeville performer who comes under suspicion because of his anti-Nazi leanings.  Otherwise, the passengers are forgettable.  Whether they die in the inferno and manage to make it to the ground, your main reaction will probably be to look at them and say, “Who was that again?”

Anyway, despite all of Ritter and Vogel’s sleuthing, it’s not much of mystery because it’s pretty easy to figure out that the saboteur is a crewman named Boerth (William Atherton).  Having seen Real GeniusDie Hard and the original Ghostbusters, I found it odd to see William Atherton playing a sympathetic character.  Atherton did okay in the role but his attempt at a German accent mostly served to remind me that absolutely no one else in the film was trying to sound German.

Anyway, the main problem with The Hindenburg is that it takes forever for the airship to actually explode.  The film tries to create some suspense over whether Ritter will keep the bomb from exploding but we already know that he’s not going to.  (Let’s be honest.  If you didn’t already know about the Hindenburg disaster, you probably wouldn’t be watching the movie in the first place.)  The film probably would have worked better if it had started with the Hindenburg exploding and then had an investigator working backwards, trying to figure out who the saboteur was.

However, the scenes of the explosion almost make up for everything that came before.  When that bomb goes off, the entire film suddenly switches to black-and-white.  That may sound like a cheap or even sensationalistic trick but it actually works quite well.  It also allows the scenes of passengers and crewmen trying to escape to be seamlessly integrated with actual footage of the Hindenburg bursting into flame and crashing to the ground.  The real-life footage is still shocking, especially if you’re scared of fire.  Watching the real-life inferno, I was again shocked to realize that only 36 people died in the disaster.

In the end, The Hindenburg is flawed but watchable.  George C. Scott was always at his most watchable when playing a character disappointed with humanity and the real-life footage of the Hindenburg disaster is morbidly fascinating.

Oh, the humanity indeed!

Insomnia File No. 19: Great Expectations (dir by Alfonso Cuaron)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you were awake at 2 in the morning last night, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1998 film, Great Expectations.

Great Expectations is an adaptation of the famous novel by Charles Dickens, the one about the orphan who helps a fugitive, is mentored by a bitter rich woman who lives in a decaying mansion, falls in love with the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella, and then later is helped out by a mysterious benefactor.  The thing that sets this adaptation apart from other version of the novel is that the 1998 Great Expectations is set in modern-day America, as opposed to Victorian-era Great Britain.

Actually, beyond retaining certain aspects of the plot, it’s interesting how little this version of Great Expectations has to do with the original novel.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  While Charles Dickens deserves to be remembered as one of the fathers of modern literature, he could also be a terribly pedantic writer.  This adaptation only touches on the novel’s overriding concerns about class and wealth in the most simplistic of ways.  It also abandons most of the novel’s subplots and instead concentrates on the love story between Estella (Gwynneth Paltrow) and Finn (Ethan Hawke).

Oh yeah, did I mention that?  The hero of this version of Great Expectations is not named Phillip Pirrip and we never have to listen to him explain that, as a child, he was nicknamed Pip because he apparently could not speak.  Instead, Pip has been renamed Finn, short for Finnegan.  If you believe the trivia section of the imdb, Finn was apparently the name of Ethan Hawke’s dog.  And again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  One of the main reasons why so many readers automatically dislike the narrator of Great Expectations is that he is named Pip.

Anyway, in this version, Pip Finn grows up in Florida, an orphan who is raised by his blue-collar brother-in-law, Joe Gargery (Chris Cooper, giving a very Chris Cooperish performance).  The escaped convict is played by Robert De Niro and, towards the end of the film, there’s a hilarious scene where Finn and the convict meet for a second time and Finn somehow does not recognize him, despite the fact that he still pretty much looks the same and still acts exactly like Robert De Niro.  The eccentric woman who mentors the young Finn, Mrs. Havisham Dinsmoor, is played by Anne Bancroft and Bancroft, made up to look like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, gives a performance of almost transcendent weirdness.  And, of course, Estella — who has been raised to seduce and then destroy men — is played by Gwynneth Paltrow and, as usual, Paltrow is a lot more believable when Estella is remote and self-centered than when she has to soften up towards the end of the film.

It’s an odd film, to be honest.  This is one of those films that you watch and you try to be cynical but it’s all so lushly shot and deliriously (and manipulatively) romantic that you can’t help but occasionally get wrapped up in its spell.  Hawke and Paltrow, both of whom are incredibly young in this movie, may not have much chemistry but they’re both so achingly beautiful that it almost doesn’t matter.

Great Expectations was the second film to be directed by Alfonso Cuaron and it’s just as visually stylish as his later films.  It’s a frequently shallow and somewhat silly film but oh my God, is it ever pretty to look at.

Great_expectations_poster

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #28: The Turning Point (dir by Herbert Ross)


(Lisa is currently in the process of trying to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing all 40 of the movies that she recorded from the start of March to the end of June.  She’s trying to get it all done by July 11th!  Will she make it!?  Keep visiting the site to find out!)

The 28th film on my DVR was the 1977 film The Turning Point.  I recorded it off Indieplex on June 3rd.

I guess I should start this review by admitting that I really have no excuse.  As someone who grew up dreaming of being a prima ballerina and who unknowingly caused her mother to spend an incalculable amount of money of dance classes, dance outfits, dance shoes, dance trips, and all the medical bills that go along with having a klutzy daughter who is obsessed with ballet and as someone who continues to love to dance today, I really have no excuse for not having seen The Turning Point before last night.  Along with The Red Shoes and my beloved Black Swan, The Turning Point is one of three ballet movies to have been nominated for best picture.  It’s a film that, as a result of its box office success, established many of the clichés that continue to show up in dance movies to this day.

Seriously, how had I not seen it before?

And make no mistake about it — The Turning Point is a dance movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a plot.  Actually, there’s several plots and it’s not incorrect to describe The Turning Point as being something of a soap opera.  But ultimately, all the plots are just window dressing.  Director Herbert Ross started his career as a choreographer with the American Ballet Theater and the characters in The Turning Point are fictionalized portraits of people that he actually knew.  Ross’s love for both ballet and the dancers comes through every frame of The Turning Point and the film’s best moments are when the melodrama takes a backseat to the performances onstage.

But I guess we actually should talk about the melodrama.  Okay, here goes:

Many years ago, DeeDee (Shirley MacClaine) and Emma (Anne Bancroft) both belonged to the same New York ballet company.  DeeDee was the star of the company and was set to play the lead in Anna Karenina when another dancer with the company, Wayne (Tom Skerritt), got her pregnant.  DeeDee not only dropped out of the company but she married Wayne and moved back to his home state of Oklahoma.  (The film suggests, in an oddly regressive moment, that Wayne only slept with DeeDee in order to prove that, despite being a male dancer, he wasn’t gay.)  DeeDee and Wayne opened a dance studio in Oklahoma City while Emma got the lead in Anna Karenina and went on to become a prima ballerina.

18 years later, Wayne and DeeDee’s daughter, Emilia (Leslie Browne), is invited to join the company.  Because Emilia is shy and somewhat naive, DeeDee accompanies her to New York while Wayne stays behind in Oklahoma with their younger children.

Once in New York, DeeDee starts to wonder if she made the right decision when gave up ballet for domesticity.  She run into an old friend, conductor Joe Rosenberg (Anthony Zerbe, not playing a villain for once) and has an affair with him.  Meanwhile, Emma is having an affair with a married man named Carter (Marshall Thompson) and is struggling to accept that she’s getting older and will soon have to retire.  Just as DeeDee regrets giving up dancing, Emma regrets never having children.

Meanwhile, Emilia slowly starts to come into her own and blossom as a dancer.  She even ends up having an affair with the self-centered and womanizing Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov), one of the stars of the company.  Emilia and Emma start to grow close, with Emma treating Emilia like her own daughter.  DeeDee finds herself growing jealous of both her daughter and her former best friend.

Needless to say, it all leads to Emma throwing a drink in DeeDee’s face and the two of them having a cat fight on the streets of New York…

The Turning Point is no Black Swan or Red Shoes.  Leslie Browne (who was playing a character based on herself) was a great dancer but not much of an actress so you never care about her the way that you do Natalie Portman in Black Swan.  The dancers are amazing in both films but Darren Aronofsky literally put the audience in Portman’s ballet slippers while Herbert Ross keeps the audience at a distance, allowing them to watch and appreciate the dancers’s passion but not necessarily to experience it with them.

But, with all that in mind, I still enjoyed The Turning Point.  What can I say?  I love dance movies!  Both Shirley MacClaine and Anne Bancroft give excellent performances.  Bancroft apparently had no dance experience before shooting The Turning Point (and it’s hard not to notice that, whenever Emma is performing, the camera focuses on those moving around her as opposed to Emma herself) but she still does a good job of poignantly capturing Emma’s fear of getting older and her joy when she realizes that Emilia looks up to her.  MacClaine, meanwhile, has an amazing scene where she watches her screen daughter perform and, in just a matter of seconds, we watch as every emotion — pride, envy, regret, and finally happiness — flashes across her face.

And, of course, there’s that cat fight.  It’s a silly scene, to be honest.  But seriously, if there was any actress who could convincingly throw a drink in someone else’s face, it was Anne Bancroft.

The Turning Point was nominated for 11 Oscars and it ended up setting a somewhat dubious record when it managed to win exactly zero.  (This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising when you consider its competition included Annie Hall and the first Star Wars.)

Well — no matter!

Though the film may not be perfect, I liked it!

The Turning Point