Claude Reigns Supreme: THE UNSUSPECTED (Warner Brothers 1947)


cracked rear viewer

As a classic film blogger, I’m contractually obligated to cover film noir during the month of “Noirvember”, so every Tuesday this month I’ll be shining the spotlight on movies of this dark genre!


Claude Rains  received second billing in 1947’s THE UNSUSPECTED, but there’s no doubt who’s the star of this show. Nobody could steal a picture like Rains, as I’ve stated several times before – his sheer talent commands your attention! Here, he gives a chilling portrayal of a cold, calculating murderer in a Michael Curtiz noir based on a novel by Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, and runs away with the film. Joan Caulfield gets top billing, but let’s be honest – it’s Claude’s movie all the way!

The film begins with a frightening scene played mostly in shadow, as a figure creeps into the office of Victor Grandison (Rains) and murders his secretary Robyn Wright while…

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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man (dir by Martin Ritt)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s going to take a while.  She recorded this 1962 literary adaptation off of FXM on January 30th!)

Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man is one of those films that you just know was made specifically to win Oscars.  It’s a big prestige production, complete with a historical setting, an epic scope and big, all-star cast.  That most of those stars appear in relatively small roles was undoubtedly meant to evidence of the film’s importance.

“Look!” the film seems to shout at times, “This is such an important film that even Paul Newman was willing to stop by for a day’s work!”

The film is based on ten short stories by Ernest Hemingway and, loosely, A Farewell to Arms.  The stories all dealt with the early life of Nick Adams, who was a literary stand-in for Hemingway.  Since the Nick Adams stories were autobiographical (and, for that matter, so was A Farewell to Arms), the film can also be viewed as biopic.  Richard Beymer (who, a year earlier, had starred in West Side Story and who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) may be playing Nick Adams but the film leaves little doubt that he was actually meant to be playing Ernest Hemingway.

The film opens with Nick hunting with his father, Dr. Harold Adams (Arthur Kennedy).  He is present when his father travels to an Indian camp and helps to deliver a baby.  He respects his father but Nick wants to see the world and the film follows him as he explores America, working odd jobs and meeting colorful characters along the way.  Paul Newman shows up as a punch-drunk boxer and proceeds to overact to such an extent that he reminded me of Eric Roberts appearing in a Lifetime film.  Nick meets rich men, poor men, and everything in between.  He works as a journalist.  He works as a porter.  Eventually, when World War I breaks out, Nick enlists in the Italian army and the film turns into the 100th adaptation of A Farewell to Arms.

And really, I think it would have been an enjoyable film if it had been directed by someone like Otto Preminger, George Stevens, or maybe even Elia Kazan.  These are directors who would have embraced both the pulpy potential of the Nick Adams stories and the soapy melodrama of the war scenes.  A showman like Preminger would have had no fear of going totally and completely over the top and that’s the approach that this material needed.  Instead, Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man was directed, in a painfully earnest style, by Martin Ritt.  Ritt tries to imitate Hemingway’s famously understated style with his understated direction but, cinematically, it’s just not very interesting.  Ritt portrays everything very seriously and very literally and, in the end, his direction is more than a little dull.

Sadly, the same can be said for Richard Beymer’s performance in the lead role.  Beymer comes across as being the nice guy who everyone says you should marry because he’ll be able to get a good and stable job and he’ll probably never go to jail.  Two months ago, when I watched and reviewed Twin Peaks, I really loved Beymer’s performance as Ben Horne.  He just seemed to be having so much fun being bad.  Unfortunately, in Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man, he never seemed to be having any fun at all.  No wonder he temporarily put his film career on hold so that he could fully devote himself to working as a civil rights activist.

In the end, this is a movie that’s a lot more fun to look at than to actually watch.  Visually, the film is frequently quite pretty in an early 1960s prestige movie so sort of way.  And there are some good performances.  Eli Wallach, Ricardo Montalban, Susan Strasberg, Arthur Kennedy — there’s a whole host of performers doing memorable supporting work.  Unfortunately, even with all that in mind, this well-intentioned film largely falls flat.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Auntie Mame (dir by Morton DaCosta)


Oh Lord, Auntie Mame.

There were two reasons why I watched the 1958 film Auntie Mame.

First off, as I’ve mentioned before, TCM has been doing their 31 Days of Oscar this month.  They’ve been showing a lot of films — both good and bad — that were nominated for best picture.  Since it’s long been my goal to see and review every single film that has ever nominated for best picture, I have made it a point to DVR and watch every best picture nominee that has shown up on TCM this month.  Auntie Mame was nominated for best picture of 1958 and was broadcast on TCM this month so I really had no choice but to watch it.

My other reason for wanting to see Auntie Mame was because, when I was 19, I was cast in a community theater production of Mame.  (Mame, of course, is the musical version of Auntie Mame.)  Though everyone who saw the auditions agreed that I should have played the role of Gloria Upson, I was cast in the ensemble.  (Gloria was played by the daughter of a friend of the director.  Typical community theater politics.)  As a member of the ensemble, I didn’t get any lines but I still had fun.  In the opening party scene, I dressed up like a flapper and I got to show off my legs.  And then in another scene, I was an artist’s model and I got show off my cleavage.  (If you don’t use being in the ensemble as an excuse to show off what you’ve got, you’re doing community theater wrong.)  Towards the end of the play, I appeared as one of Gloria’s friends and whenever she delivered her lines, I would make sure to have the most over-the-top reactions possible.  She may have stolen the part but I stole the scene.  It was a lot of fun.

But, even while I was having fun, I have to admit that I didn’t care much for Mame.  It was an extremely long and kind of annoying show and there’s only so many times you can listen to someone sing We Need A Little Christmas before you’re tempted to rip out the hair of the actress who stole the role of Gloria Upson from you.

So, when I recently sat down and watched Auntie Mame, I was genuinely curious to see if the story itself worked better without everyone breaking out into song.  After all, Auntie Mame was the number one box office hit of 1958, it was nominated for best picture, and it was apparently so beloved that it inspired a musical!  There had to be something good about it, right!?

Right.

Auntie Mame tells the story of Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell, attempting to be manic and just coming across as hyper) who is rich and quirky and irrepressibly irresponsible.  When her brother dies, Mame suddenly finds herself entrusted with raising his son, Patrick (played, as a child, by the charmless Jan Hadzlik and, as an adult, by the stiff Roger Smith).  Mame is a wild nonconformist (which I suppose is easy to be when you’ve got as much money as she does) and she tries to teach Patrick to always think for himself.  However, once Patrick grows up and decides that he wants to marry snobby Gloria Upson, Mame decides maybe Patrick shouldn’t think for himself and goes out of her way to prevent the wedding.

Auntie Mame is an episodic film that follows Mame as she goes through a series of oppressively zany adventures.  When the Great Depression hits, she’s forced to work as an actress, a saleswoman, and a telephone operator and she’s not very good at any of them.  She does eventually meet and marry the wealthy Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker).  As you can probably guess from the man’s name, he’s supposed to be from the south.  (And yet Tucker plays the role with a western accent…)  He loves Mame but then he ends up falling off a mountain.  So much for Beau.

(In the production of Mame that I appeared in, Beau was played by this 50 year-old guy who simply would not stop hitting on me and every other girl in the cast and who was always “accidentally” entering the dressing room while we were all changing.  Whenever Mame mentioned Beau’s death, all of us ensemble girls would cheer backstage.)

Anyway, as a film, Auntie Mame doesn’t hold up extremely well.  I can understand, to an extent, why it was so popular when it was first released.  It was an elaborate adaptation of a Broadway play and, in 1958, I’m sure that its theme of nonconformity probably seemed somewhat daring.  When you watch it today, though, the whole film seems almost oppressively heavy-handed and simplistic.  It’s easy to embrace Mame’s philosophy when everyone else in the film is essentially a sitcom creation.

As I mentioned previously, Auntie Mame was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to the musical Gigi.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #19: Sunset Boulevard (dir by Billy Wilder)


Sunset Boulevard

“All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up!”

— Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

First released in 1950 and nominated for Best Picture, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest and most influential films of all time.  It’s also something of a difficult film to review because, in order for one to truly understand its greatness, it needs to be seen.  A description simply will not do.  You have to experience, first hand, the performances of Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Eric Von Stroheim.  You have to see, with your own eyes, the way that Billy Wilder perfectly balances drama, satire, and horror.  I can tell you about how cinematographer John F. Seitz perfectly contrasts the empty glossiness of Hollywood with the dark shadows that fill the ruined mansion of Norma Desmond but, again, it’s something that you owe it to yourself to see.  You need to hear the perfectly quotable dialogue with your own ears.  You need to experience Sunset Boulevard for yourself.

And, while you’re watching it, think about how easily one bad decision could have screwed up the entire film.  Sunset Boulevard is famous for being narrated by a dead man, a screenwriter named Joe (William Holden).  When we first see Joe, he’s floating in a pool.  Originally, however, the film was to open with the dead Joe sitting up in the morgue and telling us his story.  Reportedly, preview audiences laughed at the scene and it was cut out of the film.  And Wilder made the right decision to remove that scene.  Sunset Boulevard may be famous for being a strange film but, when you actually watch it, you realize just how controlled and disciplined Wilder’s direction actually is.  Sunset Boulevard may be weird but it’s never less than plausible.

Joe Gillis is a former newspaper reporter-turned-screenwriter.  He may have started out as an idealist but, as the film begins, he’s now just another Hollywood opportunist.  While trying to hide from a man looking to repossess his car, Joe stumbles upon a dilapidated old mansion.  The owner of the mansion is none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who has sent been forgotten but who still dreams of making a comeback.  (When Joe tells her that she used to be big, Norma famously responds that she’s still big and it’s the pictures that have gotten small.)  Norma has written a script and the opportunistic Joe convinces her to hire him as a script doctor.

Joe moves into the mansion and discovers a world that has never moved past the 1920s.  Norma’s butler and former director, Max (played by Gloria Swanson’s former director Erich Von Stroheim) writes letters that he claims were sent by Norma’s fans.  Norma spends her time watching her old movies.  Occasionally, other forgotten silent screen stars (including Buster Keaton) drop by to play cards.

Encouraged by Joe’s vapid flattery and a mysterious phone call from a Paramount exec, Norma has Max drive her down to the studio.  Greeted by the older employees and ignored by the younger, Norma visits with director Cecil B. DeMille (who plays himself).  In a rather sweet scene, she and DeMille remember their shared past.  DeMille obviously understands that she’s unstable but he treats her with real respect, in contrast to the manipulative Joe.

As for Joe, he’s fallen for a script reader named Betty (Nancy Olson) and wants to escape from being dependent on Norma.  However, Norma has invested too much in her “comeback” to just allow Joe to leave…

Sunset Boulevard is a wonderful mix of film noir and Hollywood satire.  And, though the film may be narrated by Joe and told from his point of view, it’s firmly on Norma’s side.  As easy as it is to be dismissive of Norma’s delusions, she’s right in the end.  It is the pictures that have gotten small and, as she proves towards the end of the film, she is still as capable of making a grand entrance as she ever was.

Joe may have been too stupid to realize it but Norma Desmond never stopped being a star.