Happy Birthday Bette Davis: THE LETTER (Warner Brothers 1940)


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Film noir buffs usually point to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR as the first of the genre. Others cite 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON as the film that launched the movement. But a case could certainly be made for William Wyler’s THE LETTER, released three months after STRANGER, but containing all the elements of what would be come to called film noir by future movie buffs. THE LETTER also features a bravura performance by Miss Bette Davis , who was born on this date in 1905, as one hell of a femme fatale.

The movie starts off with a bang (literally) as Bette’s character Leslie Crosbie emerges from her Malaysian plantation home pumping six slugs into Geoff Hammond under a moonlit night sky. The native workers are sent to fetch Leslie’s husband, rubber plantation supervisor Robert, from the fields. He brings along their attorney Howard Joyce, and it’s a…

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Wild Wyler West: Gary Cooper is THE WESTERNER (United Artists 1940)


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It’s hard to believe that, except for two films in which he cameoed, I haven’t covered any movies starring my namesake, Gary Cooper . Nor have I written anything about any of major Hollywood director William Wyler’s works. So let’s kill two birds with one stone and take a look at 1940’s THE WESTERNER, one of the best Westerns ever. It’s a highly fictionalized account of the life and times of Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903), played by Walter Brennan in his third and final Oscar-winning role, with Cooper as a drifter at odds with “The Law West of the Pecos”.

That “law” is Bean, who sides with the open range cattlemen against the homesteaders who’ve moved into the area. Into the town of Vinagaroon rides Coop as Cole Harden on his way to California. Unfortunately for Cole, he rides in on a horse stolen from one of Bean’s cronies, and…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Heiress (dir by William Wyler)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1949 best picture nominee, The Heiress!)

“I have been taught by the masters.”

— Catherine Sloper (Olivia De Havilland) in The Heiress (1949)

I’m not going to spoil too much of the ending of The Heiress, beyond saying that those are the words with which Catherine ends the film.  Taken out of context, they may not seem like much.  However, after you’ve spent two hours with Catherine, her father, and the man who claims that he’s in love with her, these are perhaps seven of the most chilling words ever uttered.  When you hear them, you don’t know if you should cheer or be very, very afraid.  Myself, I had both reactions but, then again, I often do.

The Heiress, which is based on a play that’s based on a novel by Henry James, takes place in 19th century New York City.  Austin Sloper (Sir Ralph Richardson) is a widely admired and very successful physician.  He’s also a very cold man, one who has never recovered from the death of his wife.  He lives with his daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland).  Catherine is shy and is continually told that she’s plain and boring.  She’s devoted to her father, though Austin is cruelly manipulative of her.  Catherine, who has never been in a relationship, has pretty much accepted that she’s destined to be alone.

Or, at least, she has until she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift).

From the first minute that Catherine meets him, Morris seems to be perfect.  He’s handsome.  He’s intelligent.  He’s witty.  He’s charming.  He’s Montgomery Clift, for God’s sake!  For Catherine, it’s love at first sight and Morris says that it’s the same for him.  Suddenly, Catherine’s life no longer revolves around her father.  Now, she dreams of marrying Morris.

Austin isn’t happy about this.  Despite showing his daughter nothing but disdain for most of her life, Austin suddenly become protective of her.  He says that Morris only wants to marry her because she stands to come into a great deal of money.  To prove his point, he announces that, if Catherine and Morris get married, he will disinherit Catherine and neither she nor her husband will ever get their hands on his money.

How will Morris respond to Austin’s threat?  Well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out and you really should!  The Heiress is a great movie, featuring noirish direction from William Wyler and brilliant performances from by de Havilland, Richardson, and Clift.  Dr. Sloper may be a monster but Richardson plays him with so much authority that it’s hard to dismiss his worries about Morris, no matter how much you may want to.  Montgomery Clift, meanwhile, keeps you guessing about Morris’s intentions.  And, finally, the great Olivia de Havilland deservedly won an Oscar for her performance as Catherine Sloper.  Over the course of the film, Catherine goes from being a withdrawn wallflower to being a … well, I can’t tell you anymore.  I don’t want to spoil the film any more than I already have.  The ending will leave you shaken in the best possible way.

The Heiress was nominated for best picture but lost to All The King’s Men.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Dodsworth (dir by William Wyler)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1936 best picture nominee, Dodsworth!)

Dodsworth is the type of film that makes me thankful for both TCM and my own obsession with Oscar history.

Based on a Sidney Howard-penned stage adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Dodsworth tells the story of an American couple abroad and how their travels change them as both individuals and as a couple.  Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a wealthy man living in the middle of the United States.  20 years ago, he founded Dodsworth Motors and now, he’s finally reached the point where he can sell his company and retire.  Sam doesn’t have any big plans, not yet anyway.  Mostly, he just wants to visit Europe with his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton).  They’ve never been.

Walter Huston is perfectly cast as Sam Dodsworth.  When we first meet Sam, we’re not really sure whether we’re going to like him or not.  He seems to be a decent human being but he also seems to be rather resistant to change.  He’s a self-made man.  He’s smart but he’s not well-educated.  He’s honest but he’s stubborn.  He’s rich but he’s hardly sophisticated.  He says that he wants to experience new things but we can’t help but wonder how he’s going to react when he actually has the opportunity.

The cracks in Sam and Fran’s marriage become obvious as soon as they board a luxury liner heading for England.  Sam meets another traveler, Edith (Mary Astor).  Edith is divorced and lives in Italy, two things that make her very exotic to a proud product of middle America like Sam Dodsworth.  Edith and Sam immediately hit it off but there’s no way that Sam would ever consider having an affair.  Meanwhile, Fran finds herself attracted to a series of different Europeans, played by David Niven, Paul Lukas, and Gregory Gaye.  While Fran loves Europe, Sam finds himself yearning to return to the small town world that he knows best.

For a film that was released 82 years ago, Dodsworth remains a remarkably watchable and involving film.  Along with featuring brilliant lead performances from Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor, Dodsworth touches on universal themes that remains as relevant as today as when the film was first released.  Though neither Sam nor Fran would probably recognize the term, their trip to Europe leads to an existential crisis that will be familiar to anyone who has ever looked at their life and wondered, “Is this all there is?”  At the start of the film, both characters believe that they’ve found perfection in their marriage, their family, and their money.  By the end of the movie, both of them realize just how wrong they were.

If not for my love of Oscar history, I never would have seen Dodsworth listed among the films nominated for best picture of 1936.  And, if not for TCM, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to DVR Dodsworth this morning and then watch it earlier tonight.  That’s why it pays to know your history and to take chances on films of which you previously may not have heard.

Dodsworth was nominated for 7 Academy Awards but it only won the Oscar for Best Art Direction.  It lost Best Picture to a far less memorable film, The Great Ziegfield.

Classic Film Lovers Rejoice! Here’s The Trailer for Five Came Back!


If you love classic movies, you’re going to love this trailer for the new Netflix documentary, Five Came Back!

Based on Mark Harris’s brilliant non-fiction book, Five Came Back takes a look at the work that five great directors — Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, George Stevens, and John Ford — did during World War II.  It’s a fascinating story and it was a fascinating book.  I just hope this documentary does it justice.

We’ll find out on March 31st!

(Incidentally, Five Came Back is narrated by Meryl Streep so expect to see her nominated for Best Actress next year…)

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Nominee: Roman Holiday (dir by William Wyler)


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The 1953 film Roman Holiday is one that I’ve watched quite a few times.  If you know anything about the film and/or me, you won’t be surprised by that.  I love Audrey Hepburn.  I love Rome.  I love romance.  And I love bittersweet endings.  And Roman Holiday has all four of those!

Speaking of Audrey Hepburn, I’ve shared this picture before but I’m going to share it again:

Audrey Hepburn 1954 Roman HolidayThat is Audrey Hepburn, the morning after she won the Best Actress Oscar for Roman Holiday.  Roman Holiday was Audrey Hepburn’s motion picture debut and it continues to hold up as one of the greatest film debuts of all time.  Watching how easily she controls and dominates the screen in Roman Holiday, you would think that she had made over a 100 films previously.

The film tells a simple story, really.  Audrey plays Ann, the crown princess of an unnamed country.  Princess Ann is touring the world.  The press is following her every move.  Her royal handlers are carefully choreographing every event.  Her ever-present bodyguards are always present to make sure that no one gets too close to her.  In public, Ann is the epitome of royal discretion, smiling politely and always being careful to say exactly the right thing.  But, in private, Ann is restless.  Ann knows that she has never been allowed to see the real world and yearns to escape, if just for one night, and live a normal life.  So far, her handlers have managed to keep her under control but then she arrives in Rome and…

…well, who can resist Rome?

Despite having been given a sedative earlier, Ann stays awake long enough to sneak out of her hotel room and see the enchanting Rome night life.  Of course, the sedative does eventually kick in and she ends up falling asleep on a bench.  It’s there that she’s discovered by an American, a cynical reporter named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck).  Not realizing who she is and, instead, assuming she’s just a tourist who has been overwhelmed by Rome, Joe allows her to spend the night at his apartment.

The next morning, Joe finds out who Ann actually is.  Realizing that getting an exclusive interview with Ann could be his ticket to the big time, Joe and his photographer, Irving (Eddie Albert), rush back to Joe’s apartment.  Joe doesn’t tell her that he’s a reporter.  He just offers to take her on a tour of Rome.  Ann, however, wants to experience Rome on her own.

What follows is a wonderful and romantic travelogue of the glory of Rome.  Though Ann does explore on her own for a while, she eventually does meet back up with Joe and Irving.  Whenever I watch Roman Holiday, I always try to put myself in the shoes of someone in 1953, sitting in the audience during the film’s first week of release.  For many of them, this film may have been their first chance to ever see Rome.  (The opening credits of Roman Holiday proudly announce that the entire film was shot on location, properly acknowledging the Rome is as much a star of this film as Hepburn, Peck, and Albert.)  If you’re not already in love with Rome (and I fell in love with the city — and really, the entire country of Italy — the summer after I graduated high school), you will be after watching Roman Holiday.

(If you truly want to have a wonderful double feature, follow-up Roman Holiday with La Dolce Vita.)

The film’s most famous scene occurs at the Mouth of Truth and… well, just watch…

This scene was improvised, on the spot, by Gregory Peck.  Audrey Hepburn’s scream was very much real as Peck didn’t tell her what he was planning on doing.  As great as this scene is, it’s even better after you’ve actually been to Rome and put your own hand in the Mouth of Truth.

It’s a very sweet movie, one that stands as both a tribute to romance but also proof of what pure movie star charisma can accomplish.  It’s not just that Audrey Hepburn gives a great performance as Princess Ann.  It’s that Gregory Peck gives one of his most natural and surprisingly playful performance as well.  It’s that Peck and Hepburn have an amazing chemistry.  By the end of the film, you know that they deserve Rome and Rome deserves them.

And then there’s that ending, that bittersweet ending that always brings tears my mismatched eyes.  It’s a sad (though not depressing) little ending but somehow, it’s also the only ending that would work.

Roman Holiday was nominated for best picture but it lost to From Here To Eternity.

That’s right — Roman Holiday and From Here To Eternity were released one after another.

1953 was a very good year.

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Cleaning Out The DVR #14: The Letter (dir by William Wyler)


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After watching Break-Up Nightmare, I watched one more film that was sitting on my DVR.  That film was 1940’s The Letter.  I had recorded it off of TCM and, up until last night, I had never seen it before.  I’m happy to say that I’ve seen it now because it’s a great movie, featuring a fascinating mystery, feverish atmosphere, excellent supporting performances, and a ferociously brilliant performance from the great Bette Davis.

Filmed in a dream-like noir style by William Wyler, The Letter opens on a rubber plantation in Malaysia.  It’s night and the camera pans over the native workers all trying to sleep through the hot night.  Eventually, the camera reaches the big house, where the plantation’s wealthy and, of course, white manager lives.  (The contrast between the wealthy Europeans interlopers and the natives who work for them is a reoccurring theme throughout The Letter.)  A gunshot rings out.  A man stumbles out of the house.  Following after him is Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis).  She is carrying a gun and, as we watch, she shoots the man a few more times.  She shoots him until she’s sure that he’s dead.

Leslie is the wife of Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall, who also played Davis’s husband in The Little Foxes) and the man that she just killed is Geoff Hammond, a respected member of Malaysia’s European community.  When the police arrive, Leslie explains that Hammond “tried to make love to me” and that she was forced to kill him in self-defense.  Leslie is arrested for the crime and will have to face trial but everyone knows that she will be acquitted.  After all, Leslie and her husband are members are well-connected members of the upper, European class.

However, Leslie’s lawyer, Herbert Joyce (James Stephenson), has doubts about Leslie’s story.  He points out that she sounds just a little too rehearsed.  His suspicions are confirmed when his clerk, Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung), tells him about the existence of a letter that Leslie wrote on the day that Hammond was killed.  In the letter, Leslie orders Hammond to come see her and threatens to reveal the details of their relationship if he doesn’t.  Ong explains that he only has a copy of the letter.  The original is in the hands of Hammond’s widow (Gale Sondergaard) and she’s willing to sell the letter for a substantial price.

Not surprisingly The Letter is dominated by Bette Davis but, for me, the most memorable character is the outwardly obsequies but inwardly calculating Ong Chi Seng.  Sen Yung plays him with such a polite manner and a gentle voice that it’s actually incredibly shocking when he reveals his true nature.  And yet, even after he’s been exposed as a potential blackmailer, his manner never changes.  Meanwhile, Gale Sondergaard only appears in a handful of scenes but she steals every one of them with her steely glare.

In order to get the letter away from Ong and Mrs. Hammond, Leslie and Joyce have to convince Robert to give them the money without allowing him to learn the letter’s content.  But, what neither one of them realizes, is that Mrs. Hammond has plans that go beyond mere blackmail.

The Letter is an atmospheric melodrama that plays out almost like a fever dream and it also features one of Davis’s best performances.  It was nominated for best picture but it lost to another atmospheric melodrama, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.