Film Review: Testament (dir by Lynne Littman)

The 1983 film, Testament, is about death.  It’s about the death of a family, the death of a town, the death of a way of life, and the death of hope.

And you may be saying, “Well, gee, Lisa — that sounds like a really happy movie.”

Well, it’s not meant to be a happy movie.  Testament is a painfully grim movie about the end of the world.

The movie takes place in the town of Hamelin, California, which we’re told is 90 minutes away from San Francisco.  It’s a nice town, the type of place where everyone knows each other.  Mike (Mako) runs the local gas station and cares for his disabled son, Hiroshi (Gerry Murillo).  Elderly Henry Abhart (Leon Ames) spends his time on his radio, talking to strangers across the world.  Fania (Lilia Skala) offers up piano lessons.  Father Hollis (Philip Anglim) looks over the spiritual needs of the parish.  It’s a normal town.

The town is home to the Weatherlys.  Carol (Jane Alexander) is a stay-at-home mom who does volunteer work and who is directing the school play.  Tom (William Devane) is a common sight riding his bicycle through town every morning before heading off to work in San Francisco.  They have three children.  Mary Liz (Roxanna Zal) is a teenager who is taking piano lessons.  Brad (Ross Harris) is always trying to impress his father and is looking forward to his 14th birthday.  Scottie (Lukas Haas, in his first film) is the youngest and never goes anywhere without his teddy bear. They’re a normal family living a normal life in a normal town.

And then, one day, everything changes.  Scottie is watching Sesame Street when the program is suddenly interrupted by a clearly terrified anchorman who announces that New York has been bombed.  The president is about to speak but, before he can, there’s a bright flash of light, an distant explosion, and the entire town loses power.

At first, the people of Hamelin try to remain hopeful.  Though Tom works in San Francisco and San Francisco is among the many cities that have apparently been bombed (by who, we never learn), he also left a message on the family’s answer machine, telling them that he was on his way home.  Even with Tom missing, Carol continues to insist the he’ll be coming home at any minute.

Tom doesn’t come home.

The rest of the film follows the slow death of the town.  Even though the town was not damaged by the blast, the fallout soon hits.  Cathy (Rebecca De Mornay) and Phil (Kevin Costner) bury their newborn baby after it falls ill from radiation poisoning.  Mike, Henry, and Fania all start to grow physically ill and, in some cases, dementia sets in.  Father Hollis goes from being hopeful to being tired and withdrawn as he tries to attend to each and every death.  Larry (Mico Olmos), a young boy whose parents have disappeared, briefly moves in with the Wetherly family.  He disappears about halfway through the movie and we never learn if he left or if he died.  All we know is that no one mentions him or seems to notice that he’s gone.

Over the course of the film, Carol buries two of her children.  By the end of the film, her remaining child is starting to show signs of being sick, as is she.  Testament, which opened with bright scenes of a happy town, ends in darkness, with only a handful of people left among the living.  Even those who are alive are clearly dying and can only speak of the importance of remembering all of it, what they had and what they lost.

Sounds like a really happy film, right?  Well, it’s meant to be depressing.  It was made at a time when nuclear war was viewed as being not just probable but also inevitable.  Testament is a film that portrayed what a lot of people at the time were expecting to see in the future and, as a result, it’s not meant to be a particularly hopeful movie.  It’s a film that accomplishes what it set out to do, thanks to a great (and Oscar-nominated) performance from Jane Alexander and Lynne Littman’s low-key direction.  Unlike a lot of atomic war films, Testament does not feature any scenes of burning buildings or excessive gore.  That actually what makes it even more disturbing.  Even after the war, Hamelin still looks like it did beforehand, with the exception that many of the houses are now empty and that all of the residents are slowly dying.

(Would I have reacted as strongly to the film if I hadn’t watched it at a time when many people are afraid to go outside?  Perhaps not.  But this pandemic has brought extra power to a lot of films that may not have had as much of an impact in 2018.)

Testament is a powerful film, though not necessarily one that I ever want to watch again.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)

Jimmy Stewart is Buttons the Clown!

Listen, there’s a lot of things that can be said about the 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.  Not only was it one of three Cecil B, DeMille films to be nominated for best picture (along with 1934’s Cleopatra and 1956’s The Ten Commandments) but it was also the only one to win.  It brought Cecil B. DeMille his first and only nomination for best director.  (DeMille lost that directing Oscar to John Ford but he still took home an award, as the producer of The Greatest Show On Earth.)  The Greatest Show on Earth not only featured Charlton Heston in his first starring role but, with a finale that featured everyone involved in the same spectacular train crash, it also set the standard for the countless disaster movies that would follow.

But, with all of that in mind, the main thing that you’ll remember about this movie is that Jimmy Stewart was Buttons the Clown.

Buttons is a beloved member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.  He travels with the circus across the country, entertaining children and generally helping out wherever he can.  Everyone loves Buttons, despite the fact that no one has ever seen him without his makeup.  (That said, you only have to hear him speak to immediately recognize him as being played by Jimmy Stewart.)  Not even the circus’s no-nonsense manager, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston, naturally), knows what Buttons actually looks like.  Everyone assumes that Buttons is just a dedicated performer, a method clown.

However, it turns out that Buttons has a secret.  Of course, nearly everyone at the circus has a secret but Buttons’s secret is a little bit more serious than just a love triangle or a case of professional jealousy.  There’s a reason why Buttons is surprisingly good at providing first aid to the members of the circus.  Before he was a clown, Buttons was a doctor.  And, while he was a doctor, he killed his wife.


In Buttons’s defense, it was a mercy killing and he feels really bad about it.  That, of course, doesn’t matter to the FBI agent (Henry WIlcoxon) who suspects that the doctor may be hiding among the circus performers.  At first, Buttons views that train crash as the perfect opportunity to escape but then he finds out that many of his fellow performers have been seriously injured.  A doctor is needed.  Perhaps even a doctor in clown makeup….

Even under all that makeup, Jimmy Stewart does a great job of bringing Buttons to life.  Sometimes, we associate Stewart so much with his famous way of speaking that we overlook just what a good actor Jimmy Stewart actually was.  Even before you discover why Buttons is running from the cops, Stewart does a good job of capturing the sadness and the regret that lies at the heart of Button.  He’s truly a tragic clown.

Buttons’s status as a fugitive is just one of the many subplots to be found in The Greatest Show On Earth.  There’s a lot of drama (not to mention parades and performances) to get through before that train crashes.  Brad, for instance, is struggling to keep the circus from going bankrupt.  Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), is torn between him and the arrogant but charming Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In fact, every woman in the circus — including Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour — is in love with the Great Sebastian.  Sebastian is a bit self-centered but he’s famous enough to ensure that the circus won’t have to be closed.  Or, at least, he is until he’s injured in a trapeze accident.  Will Sebastian ever perform again?  Meanwhile, there’s a jealous elephant trainer named Klaus (Lyle Bettinger) and a crooked concessionaire named Harry (John Kellog).  A local gangster, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney), is trying to muscle his way into the circus’s business.  Is it any surprise that Brad always seems to be in something of a bad mood?  He’s got a lot to deal with!

And yes, it’s all a bit overblown and a bit silly.  And yes, the film really does feel like it was meant to be a commercial for Ringling Bros.  And yet, in its way, the film definitely works.  There’s a sincerity at the heart of the film, one that’s epitomized by Cecil B. DeMille’s opening narration.  “”A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus — and this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops — and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show On Earth!”  DeMille was 71 years old when he made The Greatest Show On Earth and he was coming to the end of a legendary filmmaking career.  DeMille was one of the founders of the American film industry and you can argue that, if not for some of his silent spectacles, Hollywood would have always remained just a neglected suburb of Los Angeles.  If anyone understood that importance of that old saying, “The show must go on!,” it was Cecil B. DeMille.  And really, that’s what The Greatest Show On Earth is all about.  It’s a tribute to the performers who refuse to give up.  Love triangles?  Fugitive clowns?  Injured acrobats?  Lawrence Tierney?  No matter what, the show must go on!

The Greatest Show On Earth is often described as being one of the worst films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  That has more to do with the quality of the films that it beat — High Noon, The Quiet Man, Moulin Rouge, and Ivanhoe — than the film itself.  The Greatest Show On Earth is old-fashioned and a bit silly but it’s still entertaining.  Should it have beaten High Noon?  That would be a definite no.  But it’s still better than Crash.

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (Universal 1932)

cracked rear viewer

We can’t have a proper ‘Halloween Havoc!’ without inviting Bela Lugosi to the party, now can we? After all, his 1931 hit DRACULA practically invented the horror movie as far as ‘talking pictures’ go. Both Bela and director Robert Florey were slated to work on producer Carl Laemmle’s next horror opus FRANKENSTEIN, but Laemmle wasn’t satisfied with their version, handing it over to James Whale, who hired a bit player named Boris Karloff to portray the monster of science, and the rest is history. Lugosi and Florey were instead given MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, to bring to screen life. This was the first of Bela’s “mad doctor” role, a part he would essay twelve more times in films of varying quality.

It’s Carnival Night in 1845 Paris, and med student Pierre Dupin takes his girlfriend Camille L’Espanaye to make merry watching exotic belly…

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Cleaning Out the DVR: Lady In The Lake (dir by Robert Montgomery)

(Lisa is once again in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  She recorded the 1947 film noir Lady In The Lake off of TCM on June 17th!)

You are Raymond Chandler’s world-famous private detective, Phillip Marlowe!

Well, no.  Actually, you aren’t.  Lady in the Lake is best-known for being one of the first (if not the first) film to be shot from the viewpoint of the main character but actually, the film goes out of its way to remind you that you’re seeing the story through Marlowe’s eyes but you’re not Marlowe yourself.  There are three scenes in which Marlowe (played by Robert Montgomery, who also directed the film) is seen sitting behind a desk and directly addressing the audience.  He shows up to fill in a few plot details and to assure the audience that, while the film they’re watching may be experimental, it’s not too experimental.  For his part, Montgomery looks and sounds absolutely miserable whenever he has to speak directly to the audience.  One gets the feeling that these scenes were forced on him by nervous studio execs, who were probably worried that the film would be too weird for mainstream audiences.

However, the rest of the film is seen totally through Marlowe’s eyes.  When Marlowe gets punched, we see the fist flying at him.  When Marlowe smokes a cigarette, we see the smoke float away from him.  When Marlowe leers at every single woman that he meets, the camera leers as well.  When Marlowe looks at himself in a mirror, we see his reflection.  When Marlowe passes out after a beating or a car accident, the image grows blurry before fading to black.  There’s even a rather clever scene when Marlowe leans in for a kiss, just to suddenly change his mind and pull back.

Today, of course, the film’s technique doesn’t seem quite as revolutionary.  We’re used to point of view shots and moving cameras.  Last year, Hardcore Henry told its entire stupid story through a point of view shot and the shaky cam effect actually made me physically ill.  In Lady in the Lake, there is no shaky, hand-held camera work and I was happy about that.  Marlowe may turn his head left and right and he may walk forward but he apparently has nerves of steel because the image stays steady and only shakes when Marlowe’s getting beat up.

As for the film’s plot, it opens with Marlowe explaining that, since he’s not making enough money as a P.I., he’s decided to try his hand at writing for a pulp magazine.  While his stories are not accepted, publishing executive Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) does hire him to track down the missing wife of her boss, Derace Kingbury (Leon Ames).  As Marlowe quickly figures out, nobody’s motives are exactly pure.  Adrienne wants to marry her boss and get her hands on his money.  The wife’s lover (Richard Simmons) claims that he hasn’t seen her in weeks but still lets slip that she may no longer be alive.  The police (represented by Lloyd Nolan and Tom Tully) are corrupt, rather rude, and may know more than they are letting on.  Even a seemingly innocent landlady (Jayne Meadows) might have a secret or two.

And, of course, there’s the dead woman who is discovered in a nearby lake.  Her identity holds the key to many mysteries…

It’s an intriguing puzzle and it actually helps to see everything through Marlowe’s eyes.  If nothing else, it cuts down on the red herrings.  If Marlowe stops to stare at something, you know exactly what he’s staring at and you can be sure that it will prove to be important at some point in the story.

By the way, did I mention that Lady In The Lake is not just an experimental film noir but a Christmas movie?  Seriously, it opens with holiday music playing in the background and the opening credits are printed on cheery Christmas cards.  It’s only after the credits are over that we see that there’s a gun underneath the cards.  As a director, Montgomery does a great job juxtaposing the cheeriness of Christmas with the sordidness of the people who Marlowe has to associate with on a daily basis.  He may be dealing with a bunch of murderers and greedy con artists but almost everyone has a Christmas tree in their apartment.

In fact, it’s so easy to get so wrapped up in the film’s technique that the viewer runs the risk of not noticing just how dark and cynical Lady in The Lake truly is.  Everyone that Marlowe meets is sleazy.  Marlowe, himself, does not come across as being particularly likable.  Every room that Marlowe enters is underlit.  Interestingly, with the exception of the opening credits and a driving montage, there’s not much music to be heard in the film, a reminder that we’re only hearing what Marlowe hears.  And, in Marlowe’s world, there’s no music playing in the background to provide relief from the tension.  There’s just a mix of lies and threats.

Lady in the Lake is an intriguing film and it shows up on TCM fairly frequently.  Keep an eye out for it.

Embracing The Melodrama #13: Peyton Place (dir by Mark Robson)

Poster - Peyton Place_04

“Just remember: men can see much better than they can think. Believe me, a low-cut neckline does more for a girl’s future than the entire Britannica encyclopedia.” — Betty (Terry Moore), speaking the truth in Peyton Place (1957)

Sex!  Sin!  Secrets!  Scandal!  It’s just another day in the life of Peyton Place, the most sordid little town this side of Kings Row!  It’s also the setting of the 1957 best picture nominee, Peyton Place.

Peyton Place is a seemingly idyllic little village in New England.  The town is divided by railroad tracks and how your fellow townspeople views you literally depends on which side of the tracks you live on.  As the film itself shows us, the right side of tracks features pretty houses and primly dressed starlets.  The wrong side of the tracks features shacks and a bunch of people who look like the ancestors of the cast of Winter’s Bone.  The difference in appearance is not particularly subtle (but then again, the same thing could be said for the entire film) but, regardless of which side of the tracks live on, chances are that you’re keeping a few secrets from the rest of the town.

On the right side of the tracks, you can find Constance McKenzie (played by Lana Turner, who is just about as convincing as a New England matron as you would expect a glamorous Hollywood star to be), a dress shop owner who is so prim and proper that she literally flies into a rage when she comes across her daughter kissing a boy.  Could it be the Constance’s repression is the result of her once having been a rich man’s mistress?  And will the new high school principal, the progressive and rather dull Mr. Rossi (Lee Phillips), still love her despite her sordid past?

Constance’s daughter is Allison (Diane Varsi) and poor Allison just can not understand why her mother is so overprotective.  Will Allison ever find true love with the painfully shy Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) or will she be forced to settle for someone like the rich and irresponsible Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe)?

Rodney, for his part, is in love with Betty (Terry Moore), a girl from the wrong sides of the tracks.  Rodney’s father (Leon Ames) is the richest man in town and makes it clear that he will not allow his son to marry someone with a “reputation.”  Will Rodney get a chance to redeem himself by going off to fight in World War II?

And what will happen when Rodney and Betty go skinny dipping and are spotted by a local town gossip who promptly mistakes them for Norman and Allison?  Reputations are at stake here!

Meanwhile, over on the bad side of the tracks, Lucas Cross (Arthur Kennedy) sits in his shack and drinks and thinks about how the world has failed him.  His long-suffering wife (Betty Field) works as housekeeper for the McKenzie family.  Meanwhile, his abused daughter Selena (Hope Lange, giving the film’s best performance) is Allison’s best friend.  When Lucas’s attempt to rape Selena leads to a violent death, the sins and hypocrisy of Peyton Place are revealed to everyone.

Peyton Place is a big, long  movie, full of overdramatic characters, overheated dialogue, and over-the-top plotting and, for that reason, I absolutely love it!  Apparently, the film was quite controversial in its day and the scenes where Arthur Kennedy attacks Hope Lange still have the power to disturb.  However, the main reason why I enjoy Petyon Place is because anything that could happen in Peyton Place does happen in Peyton Place.

Seriously, how can you not love a film this sordid and melodramatic?

Lisa Marie Reviews The Oscar Nominees: Battleground (dir by William Wellman)

I love February.

Why?  Well, first off, we all know that February is the most romantic month of the year.  February is Valentine’s Day, romantic movies, flowers, lingerie, and chocolate.  February is also the month when, in a lead up to the Oscars, TCM devotes a good deal of its programming to showing Oscar nominees of the past.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of my dreams is to watch and review every single film that has ever been nominated for best picture. Now, realistically, I’ll never be able to accomplish this goal because the 1929 Best Picture nominee The Patriot is currently a lost film.  But, even if it does mean that I’ll only be able to see 510 out of the 511 nominated films, it’s still a dream that I’m pursuing and, with the help of TCM and the month of February, it’s a dream that’ll come true.

Take, for instance, Battleground.  This 1949 Best Picture nominee (it lost All The King’s Men) recently aired on TCM.  I’m not exactly a fan of war films but, since it was a best picture nominee, I still made sure to DVR and watch it.

Set during the final days of World War II, Battleground follows one platoon of soldiers as they fight and attempt to survive the Battle of the Bulge.  The platoon is made up of the type of characters that we usually expect to find in a WWII film but, fortunately, they’re played by an ensemble of likable actors who all bring their familiar characters to life.  There’s Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson), the newest member of the platoon who nobody wants to run the risk of getting close to.  There’s Holley (Van Johnson), the cheerful soldier who is unexpectedly thrust into a position of leadership that he might not be right for.  Roderiques (Ricardo Montalban) is from Los Angeles and is amazed by the sight of snow.  “Pops” Stazak (George Murphy) is the type of older soldier who you would totally expect to be nicknamed “Pops.”  Bettis (Richard Jaeckel) is scared of combat.  Kippton (Douglas Fowley) spends nearly the entire film looking for his lost teeth.  And finally, of course, there’s the hard-boiled but warm-hearted Sgt. Kinnie (James Whitmore).

In some ways, Battleground is a very conventional film and it’s easy to wonder how it ended up getting nominated for best film of the year.  (Among the eligible films that were not nominated: The Bicycle Thief, Champion, The Fountainhead,  On The Town, Sands of Iwo Jima, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, They Live By Night, and White Heat.)  However, the film’s nomination makes a bit more sense when you consider that it was released just four years after the end of World War II.  It was a film that appealed both to the veterans who were able to relate to the film’s story and to the patriotic spirit of a country that had just defeated the greatest evil of the 20th Century.

Battleground did not exactly make me a fan of war movies but it’s still a well-made and effective film. As opposed to a lot of other war films, Battleground never makes war look like fun.  For the most part, the emphasis is less on strategy and combat and more on the soldiers who are simply trying to survive from day-to-day.  The end result is a film that serves as a moving tribute to the soldiers who fought in World War II.