Tag Archives: Best Actor

Pre-Code Hollywood #3 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

JekyllHyde1931Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Written by: Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath (based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Edgar Norton

The first film of our latest marathon to feature elements of horror and suspense, Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story holds its own against its contemporary Universal monster movies that were scaring audiences globally. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a tremendous critical and financial success at the time of its release, earning an Academy Award for star Fredric March, along with several other nominations. Its pre-code roots are clear from the very outset of the film, where we see more early examples of open human sexuality, malicious stalking, and later on the eventual killing of human beings for pleasure.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde follows the titular Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), a kind and brilliant young doctor who is in the very upper echelon of his field. He intends to marry Muriel (Rose Hobart), the daughter of Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carrew (Halliwell Hobbes), who does not care much for Jekyll. While Muriel and her father are away, Jekyll develops a drug that supposedly releases the more “sinister” side of human beings. The groundbreaking new drug brings out the worst in Dr. Jekyll, transforming him into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde. The violent Mr. Hyde begins stalking Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), a young patient of Hyde’s. After the eventual murder of Ivy, Dr. Jekyll knows that he can no longer control the transformations, and tries desperately to push Muriel out of his life before she too is hurt by Hyde. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a suspenseful, atmospheric, and intelligent horror film that rivals most of its contemporaries. Actor Fredric March took home a much deserved Academy Award for Best Actor for his dual-personality performance, with the film also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Writing.
6 - Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Horror films of the 1930’s are most famous for their thick Gothic atmosphere, with many of the most successful examples being based on novels written in the 1800’s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is no different than many of its contemporaries in this respect, but seems to pull less punches than those other films. We see the sinister Mr. Hyde essentially sexually assaulting a young woman, as well as stalking and eventually murdering her to satisfy his own blood lust. These elements of brutality don’t seem to be found in other horror films of the era. Classics like Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein are more famous for the sheer power of their suggestive content, whereas Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is far more upfront when it comes to showing its horrific content. The transformation from Dr. Henry Jekyll to Mr. Edward Hyde is effective and frightening, thanks in part to Fredric March’s incredible performance and the terrific make-up effects by Wally Westmore. The camera focuses on March’s face for nearly thirty seconds during the initial transformation scene, which employs some truly impressive special effects and gives the audience a frightening sneak peek of the primitive-looking Mr. Hyde. Director Rouben Mamoulian expertly uses first person camera techniques to further the film’s suspense, which may be one of the first instances of the technique I’ve seen in a horror film. Mamoulian’s camera follows Hyde through all of his hideous acts, which increases the film’s sense of immersion and implicates the audience as helpless accessories to his crimes. Besides the horrific content found within Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my favorite example of its pre-code nature is an early scene where Dr. Jekyll first meets Ivy Pierson – she has been hurt in what appears to be a mugging, and Dr. Jekyll carries her up to her room in order to treat her wounds. In a shocking turn of events, Pierson admits she was exaggerating in order to get Dr. Jekyll alone with her, and seduces the young doctor. Miriam Hopkins’ mostly naked figure and dangling leg have become iconic images, and for good reason. The scene perfectly captures a palpable sexual tension and the sexual desires of a young woman, both of which would be prohibited by the proposed Hays Code. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets away with a great deal in terms of violent and sexual content, largely thanks to the skills of its director and cast, and its famous source material. It’s a landmark moment for the horror genre, and a highlight of the pre-code era as a whole. Unfortunately for the film, it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that affect many of its contemporaries. The buildup to Mr. Hyde’s violent outbursts is longer than I expected, and the film’s ending comes all too suddenly.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boasts several terrific performances in Fredric March’s award-winning take on Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, who is simultaneously brilliant and charming, and depraved and hideous, Miriam Hopkins’ independent and provocative Ivy Pierson, and Rose Hobart’s sweet Muriel Carrew. Director Rouben Mamoulian employs groundbreaking first-person camera techniques to terrify and titillate his audience, and make-up artist Wally Westmore creates a believably hideous Mr. Hyde. While it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that plague early horror films, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tremendous example of the power that early horror films hold even today. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #1 – In Old Arizona (1929)

InoldarizonaIn Old Arizona (1929)
Directed by: Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh
Written by: Tom Barry
Starring: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess

In Old Arizona was the very first western film to feature full sound, helped establish a long-lasting trope in the “singing cowboy”, and was one of the earliest movies to be nominated for the now prestigious Best Picture prize at the annual Academy Awards. With all those credits under its belt, it’s important to note that In Old Arizona is not in any way a good film. In all honesty, it might be the worst we’ve taken a look at since the blog’s inception – but that’s always part of the fun when venturing into completely unknown territory. While it certainly isn’t a perfect film, there’s no denying the film’s groundbreaking nature and its influence on one of my favorite genre – for those things alone, it’s worthy of discussion.

In Old Arizona tells the story of a charming and eccentric, but feared, cowboy named the Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) as he tangles with a local cavalry sergeant named Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) who wants his blood. The Cisco Kid is so revered by the locals that he can rob a wagon without so much as a single gunshot – these feats do nothing but further the legend of the Cisco Kid, and enrage Sgt. Mickey Dunn. Luckily for the sergeant, he finds alliances in unexpected places and is able to convince The Cisco Kid’s love interest Tonia (Dorothy Burgess) to help him capture the cowboy. Even with an unexpected betrayal working against him, the Cisco Kid is able to match the sergeant’s efforts with sheer wit and quick thinking. Warner Baxter won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Cisco Kid, and In Old Arizona was nominated for a further four awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography.
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Being nearly ninety years old, it’s no wonder that In Old Arizona feels dated in its filmmaking techniques, plot structure, and performances. If it weren’t for the countless incredible films that came before it, I’d simply chock up the movie’s faults as failure to withstand the test of time and nothing else. Truthfully, there’s not much about In Old Arizona that works all these years later – the acting is awful, especially the overacted and phony performance of Dorothy Burgess, the writing feels overly simplified and far too convenient, and the film’s structure simply doesn’t warrant a full ninety minute runtime. If any project could benefit from being a short film, it’s In Old Arizona – doing away with the drawn out middle act that leads to the unsurprising betrayal of the Cisco Kid by his girl would make this a far more memorable film. Warner Baxter’s “singing cowboy” is easily the most notable thing about the film, and even Baxter’s performance feels exaggerated and far too comedic for a character who is supposedly so revered by the people around him. Edmund Lowe’s Sgt. Mickey Dunn has screen presence and is probably the best actor in the film, but that’s not saying much considering the two actors he shares the screen with. I appreciated some of the more boundary pushing elements of the film, in particular making Dorothy Burgess’ Tonia something of a seductress, using her sexuality to her advantage on multiple occasions. There are a few notable scenes alluding to sex, some gun violence, and a rather humorous use of the word “jackass”, but overall In Old Arizona’s pre-code influence feels rather mild. The most impressive part of In Old Arizona is in its use of sound, which feels much more natural than some of its contemporaries. The sparing use of score is effective in setting a tone and atmosphere, and the use of outdoor sets makes In Old Arizona feel like a full-blown western. The directors behind the camera deserved far greater than the script and cast of actors they were given, because it’s immediately clear that there is passion and inventiveness behind the film’s flaws.

While I can’t claim to have hated the entirety of my time with Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh’s film In Old Arizona, it certainly won’t go down as one of the best movie experiences I’ll ever have. The exaggerated performances don’t lend themselves to the subject matter found in the film, instead making this something of an annoying experience. The screenplay is clearly stretching the limits of the story at hand, making what should a forty-five minute short in a full-blown feature length disaster. Both Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh would go on to have prolific careers in Hollywood, making films that are probably far more memorable than any one scene in their 1929 Best Picture nominee. In Old Arizona is sadly not recommended, no matter how curious you are about the history of film and its pre-code era.

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Top 100 Films #41 – The African Queen (1951)

 

large_african_queen_blu-ray6#41. The African Queen (1951)
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: John Huston, James Agee, Peter Viertel, John Collier (based on The African Queen by C.S. Forester)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull

John Huston’s grand adventure film The African Queen was a movie I never knew I needed in my life until I saw it, and it has since become very dear to me.  The film, based on the novel of the same name by C.S. Forester, lays the exciting groundwork for modern action-adventure films we know today.  The African Queen follows the rowdy, gin-swilling Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), captain of the titular African Queen riverboat at the outset of the first World War. Charlie is persuaded by a missionary named Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) to convert the riverboat into a torpedo boat in order to surprise attack a German gunboat patrolling the river.  Along the way, Charlie and Rose traverse dangerous rapids, sneak past a German fort, encounter leeches and mosquitoes, and slowly begin to fall in love.  The African Queen is a thrill ride from start to finish, featuring well-paced action set-pieces interspersed throughout.  John Huston treats relatively minor elements like rapids as major obstacles that our heroes have to overcome, and each victory for Charlie and Rose feels like a triumph.  The use of location shooting is another major element that leads to The African Queen standing out among the crowd, with Huston and company travelling to Uganda and the Congo in order to shoot the picture.  The visuals are lush and beautiful, with every frame filled to the brim with gorgeous river and jungle scenery.  Cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff certainly doesn’t hurt either, with the great motion photographer using Technicolor to great effect.  It’s incredibly resourceful and intelligent writing and construction, and really adds to the pacing and overall enjoyment of The African Queen.  The chemistry between stars Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn is tremendous, with both playing characters with polar opposite personalities.  Bogart’s Charlie Allnut is loud, slightly obnoxious, and simple, but very resourceful and brave, and Hepburn’s Rose Sayer is prudish and well-mannered, but also has a bold personality and a knack for strategic thinking.  The interactions between the two feel natural and classic in their contrasting nature, with the audience constantly rooting for the two to finally get along and fall in love.  Humphrey Bogart is clearly well out of his comfort zone in film, and it obviously paid off – the actor took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for the performance.  The African Queen helped to redefine the careers of director John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Katharine Hepburn, all of whom would go on to see a fairly major career resurgence after the film’s release.  The entertainment value found in Huston’s film is undeniable, fans of classic and modern cinema will find something in The African Queen to love – it’s a trailblazing triumph of the adventure genre.

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Top 100 Films #63 – Raging Bull (1980)

 

image-w1280-2#63. Raging Bull (1980)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Paul Schrader, Mardrik Martin (based on Raging Bull: My Story by Jake La Motta, Joseph Carter, Peter Savage)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Colasanto

From a classic masterpiece to a slightly more modern one, Raging Bull is almost undeniably Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s shining achievement.  The bleak and often tough to watch look at the life of boxer Jake La Motta pulls no punches, but instead acts as an honest critique of the man’s life.  Raging Bull sees the aforementioned Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) as he rises through the ranks boxing in the middleweight division, his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) serving as his manager and assistant.  Jake falls in love with a teenage girl named Vikki (Cathy Moriarty), defeats the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, being taken seriously as a legitimate fighter.  The film sees Jake La Motta’s intense jealousy over his wife Vikki, his tumultuous relationship with his brother Jake, his rise to title contention, and his very sudden and very sharp fall from grace.  The best part of Raging Bull is just how searing a look at its central figure it is – the man is rarely painted in an overly positive light.  The audience instead has to sit through difficult scenes of the La Motta family embroiled in domestic abuse, familial infighting, corruption, and serious embarrassment by the hands of fate.  Martin Scorsese’s graceful direction of the film is what makes Raging Bull special – he and cinematographer Michael Chapman shoot the movie in beautiful, but grainy, black and white.  The film’s boxing scenes are shot almost like professional ballet by Scorsese and Chapman, with each blow feeling like a true work of art.  It is Scorsese’s direction that gives Raging Bull its immense power over viewers, becoming a beautiful but disturbing look at a man who was no stranger to controversy.  The three lead performances by Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty are incredible, with each actor bringing their own take on the roles.  De Niro’s method acting techniques saw the actor gain a great deal of weight for scenes in Raging Bull’s last act, making it much more powerful and believable than prosthetics ever could.  His intense, angry performance as the jealous and violent La Motta is legendary, and earned De Niro an Academy Award for Best Actor.  Both Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty deliver more down-to-earth and level-headed performances as the two reasonable voices in the ears of Jake La Motta – Pesci being torn between feelings of loyalty and shame for his brother, and Moriarty the unsatisfied, unhappy wife of La Motta.  Worth mentioning also is the editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, which also earned her an Academy Award.  Schoonmaker experiments with slow motion and manipulation of sound during boxing scenes, making them all far more memorable and noteworthy.  Raging Bull is legendary from top to bottom, featuring the greatest modern American director in his prime, three extraordinary performances, and a hell of a script to deliver one of the most honest and painful character studies ever made.  

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Top 100 Films #72 – There Will Be Blood (2007)

 

there-will-be-blood-plainview-eli#72. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on Oil! By Upton Sinclair)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds, Dillon Freasier

The debate between the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has been raging for nearly a decade at this point.  Both incredible films released in 2007 and vying for that year’s Best Picture award, both camps have made some great points over the years about why their film is the superior one.  In my opinion, There Will Be Blood just barely edges out its competition, thanks in part to Paul Thomas Anderson’s meticulous eye for detail, the central performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, and the themes of greed and the deconstruction of American capitalism.  PTA’s film is about Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an aspiring oil baron in early 20th century America, and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young preacher looking to secure financing for his church.  We see Plainview’s rise to power, his strained relationship with his son HW (Dillon Freasier), their attempted acquisition of Eli Sunday’s land, and his eventual descent into apparent madness.  There Will Be Blood is another film on my list that comes in at well over two hours in length, and yet never meanders or overstays its welcome.  The pacing of PTA’s script (based on Oil! By Upton Sinclair) is perfect in every way, building Daniel Plainview as a man to be reckoned with, and establishing the world in which he exists in – where personal greed, religion, and the pursuit of the American dream all seem to clash.  The Academy Award winning cinematography from longtime PTA associate Robert Elswit is gorgeous, featuring sweeping landscapes, and profound visuals that push the film’s themes without having to say a single word. The towering achievement of There Will Be Blood is the Oscar-winning performance by veteran actor Daniel Day-Lewis, whose turn as Plainview is chilling.  No actor alive can match the intensity of Day-Lewis’ method acting technique – he embodies the spirit of Daniel Plainview in every frame of this picture.  Another performance that must be mentioned is that of Paul Dano, who plays something of an adversary to Plainview in Eli Sunday.  Dano’s occasional outbursts can be truly frightening, and his conniving nature is truly frustrating. It’s a shame that Dano didn’t get the admiration he truly deserved for the role, as it probably caused him to lose a nomination for Best Supporting Actor (though the deck was very much stacked against him).  There Will Be Blood is as perfect a film as you’ll find, telling an intricate, epic tale of greed in the booming days of the early oil industry.  It should really be considered required viewing at this point, as it’s a perfect example of how to create a compelling modern drama.

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Top 100 Films #73 – Ben-Hur (1959)

 

ben-hur_6783571#73. Ben-Hur (1959)
Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Karl Tunberg (based on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe

William Wyler’s biblical epic Ben-Hur is the movie that served as my introduction to classic films, creating a lifelong obsession with the silver screen in the process. I saw it as part of my grade 7 religion class all the way back in 2003-2004, and was captivated by every minute of the 3 ½ hour film.  Ben-Hur tells the classic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy prince living in Jerusalem with his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O’Donnell).  His best friend is a man named Messala (Stephen Boyd), who after some time away from Jerusalem, returns to the city as a commander of the Roman garrison.  After an accident nearly costs the life of the governor of Judea, Ben-Hur is sent to the galleys by his once best friend, and his family imprisoned.  What follows is an adventure the scale of which had rarely been seen on screen before 1959.  The film spans several years, and sees the rise and subsequent fall of Jesus Christ, who plays a prominent figure in the film.  Wyler’s Ben-Hur is mostly remembered by the public for its incredible chariot race scene, which is still just as thrilling and visceral today as it was more than fifty years ago.  The film’s few action scenes feature a sense of realism and brutality that is not often seen in film’s of this era, and adds to Ben-Hur’s unique nature.  It’s never exploitative in this way, but instead uses its visceral nature to further the story along, and convey the weight of the situations faced by Judah Ben-Hur and those around him.  Charlton Heston’s performance as the titular character is tremendous, bringing an undeniable charm and charisma to the role that has proven to be unmatched in subsequent retellings of the story.  While Ben-Hur is more than 3 ½ hours long, it never feels slow or bogged down by its run-time, mainly due to its incredible writing and pacing.  Every scene feels meticulously crafted and has a sense of purpose, and major milestone moments are evenly spaced out throughout the film.  An example of the film’s excellent sense of pacing comes in its final act – even after the chariot race is done, the film manages to keep its hold on viewers with a rigorous journey to the leper colony, where we finally get some much needed emotional payoff.  Ben-Hur would go on to win 11 Academy Awards in 1960, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), and Best Cinematography – only losing in one category.  Every minute of Ben-Hur is captivating and finely crafted – there’s no wonder why it was so well-received by a 12-year old me.

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Doctober II #4 – The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

the_times_of_harvey_milk_posterThe Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Directed by: Rob Epstein
Written by: Rob Epstein, Carter Wilson, Judith Coburn
Starring: Harvey Milk, Harvey Fierstein (narration)

Harvey Milk was an American hero who broke down barriers and paved the way for change in US politics – the effects of which are still being felt to this day.  The Times of Harvey Milk chronicles the political career of the first openly gay supervisor in San Francisco.  From his humble beginnings in neighborhood politics and activism, to his final days with an office in San Francisco’s city hall, Rob Epstein’s film covers only the most important details of Milk’s incredible career. Milk’s open homosexuality at a time when such a thing was shamed in much of the Western world was cause for controversy, much of which is discussed in the film.  In the final act of the film, the assassination of Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone by supervisor Dan White is painfully detailed by director Rob Epstein, who gives his subjects all the respect in the world.

Actor Harvey Fierstein expertly narrates the documentary with his famous and unique gravelly-voice to great effect, never distracting from the incredible use of archival footage, nor overshadowing the talking head interviews with friends, family, and fellow politicians.  It’s perhaps my favorite example of narration in documentary, largely because I couldn’t imagine the film being nearly as effective without it.  While the film is absolutely a celebration of the life and accomplishments of Harvey Milk, it never loses sight of some of its bigger picture ideas – the opening up of American politics (and American people in general) to homosexuals, and the changing of the guard in the Western world.  We see what a confused and hateful America looked like before people like Harvey Milk and Sally Gearhart lobbied for change, and then talk to people whose lives were transformed by their actions and activism.  The effect is even greater in hindsight, comparing our tolerant and accepting society today to that of 1978, which was anything but.  It took the death of a courageous leader (and many more like him) to inspire thousands to take action and stand up for what they believe. The Times of Harvey Milk paints a powerful and comprehensive picture of a massive political movement, even though it only captures the fight in a single American city – it feels epic in scale despite its admittedly small scope.

Many of Milk’s triumphs were captured on film through amateur videographers and journalists, which director Rob Epstein expertly edits into a concise chronological look at his journey through city politics.  These moments are beautiful in their humanism, and makes the film’s tragic third act that much more unbearable.  We see touching and humorous interviews with Anne Kronenberg (Milk’s campaign manager), Tom Ammiano (LGBT activist), and Sally Gearhart (activist) among others, all of whom paint a vivid portrait of who Harvey Milk was, and how tragic the loss of his life was.  While we watch Milk’s meteoric rise, Epstein simultaneously covers the election and political career of Dan White, Harvey Milk’s eventual assassin.  The Times of Harvey Milk is incredibly well-crafted, giving the audience all of the information necessary to piece together the story without bloating or boring viewers.  This was recognized by critics and audiences worldwide in the form of an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1985, and a place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012.  The life of Harvey Milk was given a big screen adaptation in 2008’s Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant, for which Sean Penn won Best Actor for portraying the titular activist and politician.
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What I Liked:

  • The talking head interviews are incredible, both the archival interviews and those captured specifically for the film.  They’re touching, funny, and revealing, with nobody afraid to talk about who Milk really is.  They embrace him for all his flaws, because at the end of the day he genuinely had good intentions.
  • The use of archival footage, especially in the film’s last act, is breathtaking.  We get a near real-time look at the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, which has become one of my all-time favorite movie moments.  Even though we all know what is coming after Dan White’s dismissal from the board of supervisors, we can’t help but hope that things turn out differently this time around.
  • Dan White is given the proper amount of time in the film, which I felt was very important seeing as he played a major part in the story of Harvey Milk.
  • The Times of Harvey Milk is as concise a documentary as I can imagine, which is an enormous feat when tackling the entire career of such an important figure.  It never overstays its welcome, which is rare for biographical films such as these.

The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the greatest biographical documentaries ever made, and I’m glad that it has been recognized as so over the years.  It’s at first glance a small scale look at the career of one brave politician and activist, but deep down it’s much more.  It’s a powerful look at a movement against hatred and bias that had tremendously far-reaching influence and importance on the lives of everyday Americans.  People like Harvey Milk made the world an infinitely better place, and Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk is a beautiful tribute to the man and the movement.  It’s relevant, important, revealing, and heartbreaking – which is everything a documentary should aspire to be.  The Oscar-winning Times of Harvey Milk gets my highest recommendation.

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Women in Film Feature #3 – Gaslight (1944)

gasl2Gaslight (1944)
Directed by: George Cukor
Written by: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston (Based on Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton)
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury

The Swedish born Ingrid Bergman has starred in some of the most iconic films of the 1940’s and 50’s, and yet remains undiscovered by an entire generation of people unenthused with the pictures, and uninterested in their storied past.  With an impressive resume of films including Casablanca, Notorious, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Anastasia, Murder on the Orient Express, Autumn Sonata, and a thematic trilogy of films with director Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman has an entire body of work ripe for discovery.  Renowned in Hollywood for her naturalistic performances, Bergman helped change the way actresses were viewed during the golden age of American films.  On screen, she was graceful, subtle, and effortlessly realistic – which stood out in an era filled with over-the-top damsel in distress performances by some of her contemporaries.  Ingrid’s realism focused performances managed to win her two Academy Awards for Best Actress, one for Best Supporting Actress, and saw her nominated a further four times throughout her career.  Her work with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Ingmar Bergman, George Cukor, Leo McCarey, and Michael Curtiz remain some of the most acclaimed films of their time, and have ensured that Ingrid Bergman’s place in Hollywood history is rightfully recognized.

The man of the hour in 1944’s Hollywood was undoubtedly the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.  With a Best Picture win just a few years previously for Rebecca, and a slew of hit American films under his belt, the man had quickly managed to leave an impression on other filmmakers of the time.  There’s no doubt in my mind that director George Cukor took a page (or an entire chapter) out of Hitchcock’s book when approaching the story of Gaslight.  Soaked in an atmosphere of dread, featuring incredibly suspenseful moments, packed with twists and turns, and filled with good performances, it has all the makings of a Hitchcock film.  Cukor had made a career as a director for hire for major studios throughout the 1930’s, and had succeeded in eventually making quite a name for himself.  With a pair of incredible performances from leads Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, a tight and thrilling screenplay, and dark and moody cinematography, it’s no wonder why Cukor’s Gaslight instantly became one of the director’s biggest hits.   The film earned seven Oscar nominations including major categories like Best Picture, Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman), Best Actor (Charles Boyer), and Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury).  The highly acclaimed Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman took home her first of three statues for her performance in Gaslight, praised for her portrayal of a paranoid and desperate woman trying to a solve a deadly mystery with suspects right under her own nose.  Gaslight is also notable for being the on-screen debut of prolific actress Angela Lansbury, multiple time Academy Award nominee, and star of the long running hit show Murder, She Wrote.  The film is seen as being somewhat dated to today’s standards, but remains an incredibly effective and suspenseful look at the forced descent into madness of a woman by a man who has managed to make his way deep into her heart.

gaslight

Paula (Ingrid Bergman) and Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) in 1944’s Gaslight.

Gaslight begins on a murderous note, with opera singer Alice Alquist turning up dead and her jewel-seeking killer fleeing the scene after being interrupted by a young woman.  The young woman is Paula (Ingrid Bergman), Alice’s niece.  The young Paula is sent to Italy soon after, in order to study under a famed opera singer, and so that she can hopefully forget about the events she saw unfold on that fateful night.  Soon, Paula meets a charming and wealthy man by the name of Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and the two quickly fall in love and marry.  Gregory convinces Paula that returning to London and living in her aunt’s vacant house would be best for her mental recovery, and the two set off for their new home.  Alice’s belongings are tucked away in the attic in order to help Paula adjust, and a young maid named Nancy (Angela Lansbury) is hired.  After accidentally finding a letter addressed to her late aunt and being forbidden by her husband to read it, Paula begins to notice odd occurrences around her new home.  The home’s gaslights begin to dim and brighten at random, pictures disappear off the walls, and she loses prized possessions from the safety of her own person.  To top it all off, the new maid seems to have taken a disliking to Paula, but her husband ignores all signs of this.  Convinced by Gregory that she’s imagining all of these events and that she’s still reeling from the trauma of seeing her aunt’s murder, Paula begins to doubt many aspects of her own reality.  She is soon isolated from outsiders by those inside the house, and her sanity is called into question by her husband.  Is there more at play than just a woman losing her mind, or is Paula being influenced by an insidious power?  Find out in George Cukor’s Gaslight!

While George Cukor and company may have taken many a page out of Alfred Hitchcock’s style book, there’s something very different and special about the way Gaslight plays out.  Its twists and turns aren’t quite as “big” as some of Hitchcock’s most effective moments, but Cukor instead opts for subtlety and making the audience think really hard.  The well-paced direction focuses on getting to know our principal characters initially, and then takes a sudden and hard turn into one woman’s battle for her own sanity.  The attention to detail and art direction is something to be admired, as the sets and costumes create a realistic and fully-immersive portrait of the film’s time and setting.  The real shining feature of Gaslight though, is its acting.  Cukor’s film is more than anything a moody and dark showcase for four incredible talents to give their absolute best performances possible.  The audience knows the twist from the very beginning, making Ingrid Bergman’s supposed descent into madness a truly frustrating and infuriating experience for viewers.  Bergman’s performance as the tortured Paula is incredible, as it’s never played in an over-the-top fashion.  Paula is a believably traumatized young woman who may have put what little trust she had left into somebody that is completely toxic for her.  Supporting Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance is a delightfully evil Charles Boyer as Gregory, Paula’s charming husband.  Boyer’s Gregory is sly, cunning, and has a silver-tongue when it comes to dealing with his wife, and every scene featuring the two becomes a subtle and suspenseful power play.  Even Hitchcock would have trouble making a character so hateable and yet so fully-realized at the same time, but Cukor pulls it off masterfully.  Worth mentioning is the debut of Angela Lansbury, whose turn as the maid Nancy earned her an Oscar nomination as well.  Nancy aids in creating the tense and toxic atmosphere that is slowly driving Paula insane, and the very young Lansbury is perfect for the role.

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Oscar-winner Ingrid Bergman and Best Actor nominee Charles Boyer in George Cukor’s terrific Gaslight.

While it may not be a completely unique or unpredictable tale in the modern age, George Cukor’s Gaslight is an incredible tale of a web of lies, deceit, betrayal, and madness.  It gives Alfred Hitchcock’s very best a run for its money, and has been undoubtedly influential on modern day suspense pictures.  Guillermo del Toro should have taken a page out of George Cukor’s book when making 2015’s Crimson Peak, as the two films share a great deal of similarities.  Gaslight features an Oscar-winning performance from one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses, a terrific and believable antagonist, subtle and deliberate pacing, and hopelessly bleak atmosphere aided by the dark and foggy cinematography.  It’s slow, maddening, and chock full of incredibly admirable qualities.  George Cukor’s Gaslight is highly recommended.

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Black Directors Feature #7 – Malcolm X (1992)

large_tl3Bxpv6pLhm6gZOtokQuqPw7BuMalcolm X (1992)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, Arnold Perl (Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, Alex Haley)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee

One of the greatest biopics in film history about one of the world’s most important social activists in history, released in a notably strong year for Hollywood, and made by one of America’s most controversial and misunderstood filmmakers – what on earth could go wrong?  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X came out after a string of critically acclaimed hits from the young director.  How does one follow a filmography with titles like She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and one of the most important movies of the 1980’s – Do the Right Thing?  By making a film about one of the most important and divisive figures in modern American history, that’s how.  The pairing of Spike Lee and Malcolm X seems like a natural pairing in retrospect, but at the time lead up to its release the film had a great deal of naysayers and non-believers waiting for the epic project to crash and burn.  But it didn’t, and instead Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington crafted one of the most intimate, epic in scale, and meaningful biographical dramas ever made.  Covering the man’s young adulthood from his less than glamorous life of crime, to his time in prison that directly led to his adoption of the Islamic lifestyle, to his later political and religious activism in the American South, ultimately leading to the tragic and complicated demise of Malcolm X.  It was critically acclaimed from the moment it was released to the world, landing on many critics top 10 lists for 1992, was highly praised by legendary film director Martin Scorsese, and even ranked as Roger Ebert’s favorite film of the year.  Malcolm X was nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Actor in a Leading Role (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design.  Unfortunately for Spike Lee and his labor of love, the epic biopic was released in a year where Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven dominated the awards season, and films like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, James Ivory’s Howards End, Robert Altman’s The Player, Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, and others like The Scent of a Woman and Chaplin hogged the spotlight.  Washington’s loss to Al Pacino for Best Actor has gone down as a tragic mistake for the Academy, giving the award to an actor who had never won the award, instead of one who truly had the best performance of that year.  Fortunately, Lee’s Malcolm X is now looked back upon as one of the best films of the decade, and lives on in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.  Since his critically acclaimed effort on Malcolm X, Spike Lee has made numerous acclaimed films, spanning a wide variety of genres, most notably documentaries like 4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and its follow up If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, along with narrative films like 25th Hour, Bamboozled, Summer of Sam, Inside Man, and his most recent Chi-Raq.

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Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in his pre-Nation of Islam days.

Told in three separate acts, Malcolm X explores the entire adult life of the man himself.  Each act takes place in a different period of Malcolm’s life, and chronicles his rise from a relative nobody to one of the most influential and controversial men of his time.  The film begins with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) getting involved in the Harlem crime scene, committing petty crimes for West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), a crime boss.  We also come to find out what has happened to Malcolm’s family – his father was murdered by white supremacists when Malcolm was a child, and his mother was institutionalized after displaying signs of mental illness.  After a falling out with Archie, Malcolm flees to Boston and takes up a different style of crime.  Soon enough, his luck runs up and Malcolm and his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) end up in prison, where Malcolm is to serve a ten-year term.  The second act in the film sees Malcolm trying to survive the harsh conditions of prison.  He meets a man with some pull named Baines (Albert Hall), who slowly introduces him to the ways of Islam, and Malcolm becomes a bona fide member of the Nation of Islam.  The third and lengthiest portion of the movie sees Malcolm under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), the leader of the Nation of Islam.  Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm form a strong bond, and the young man quickly rises up the ranks of the NOI.  Eventually, Malcolm meets his future wife Betty (Angela Bassett), who becomes a major influence on his life.  After travelling to Mecca, Malcolm’s beliefs are views are shaken and he begins to view things differently than the way the Nation of Islam has taught him to believe.  This sets in motion the events that will ultimately lead to the assassination of the charismatic civil rights activist, and the rest, for better or worse, is history.

There are very films sitting at the 200 minute mark that I’ve enjoyed every single second of, but I can say without a doubt that Malcolm X belongs to that very exclusive and prestigious club.  The 1992 biopic could have just been yet another run of the mill and standard story of an incredibly important man in history, which is why I’m so thankful for Spike Lee’s involvement in the project.  His passion for Malcolm X and the history of African Americans in the United States can be felt throughout the 200 minutes, and Lee’s timeless directorial style elevates it from what many would consider “Oscar-bait” into a truly brave and outstanding production from all perspectives.  After seeing and being highly disappointed by Lee’s acclaimed film 25th Hour, I thought that nothing in his filmography could ever reach the highs of movies like Do the Right Thing and Chi-Raq, but boy was I wrong.  Malcolm X may be not only the greatest biopic ever made, but also my favorite Spike Lee joint.  Nearly every aspect that I can think of featured in Malcolm X is outstanding, from the production design to the acting.  Every act feels different in its tone and deals with different themes, from discovering oneself in the first, to finding answers in spirituality in the second, and later to making profound discoveries about yourself and changing major views you once passionately held true.  The locations and costumes help bring the world around us to life, and allows the audience to completely sink into the era.  The true standout here is very clearly Denzel Washington in his portrayal of the titular X.  His portrayal always exudes the confidence that Malcolm X so clearly had in order to go so far at the rate he did, but also gets across the overly-serious nature of the man, as well as his later struggles with his faith in the Nation of Islam.  I’ve never seen Denzel better than he was here, and it’s a damn shame that he didn’t take home the Oscar on the fateful night in March of 1993.  Backing up Washington’s performance is a terrific roster of supporting players like Angela Bassett, writer-director Spike Lee himself, Albert Hall, and Al Freeman, Jr.  I firmly believe that Washington’s performance wouldn’t have been half as great as it was if it weren’t for incredible direction by Spike Lee.  If anything, the man knows how to direct an actor to a terrific performance, and this is easily his finest work.  Spike’s usual stylistic flashes are toned down in Malcolm X’s first half because of its historical and serious nature, but they’re still noticeable when they’re there.  The final act of the film is drenched in style, including montages and the incredible arson scene.  His quick editing style matched with the use of occasion long takes to get a point across works tremendously, especially in the film’s final twenty minute stretch.  While the death of Washington’s Malcolm X is incredibly hard to watch, the impact it has is a testament to the power of the picture.  You know it’s coming for three hours, and yet it still manages to shock and move you when the time finally comes for it.

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Denzel Washington as the titular Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 joint.

Please – if you haven’t seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X before reading this review, for the love of all things holy do yourself a favor and track down the film.  While the run-time may scare some viewers away, I can promise you that the experience flies by, especially once X has gotten out of prison and embraced his new found way of life.  This is an incredibly moving and powerful film about a man who I greatly admire, flaws and all.  It does his life and accomplishments justice, and still isn’t afraid to look at Malcolm X with a highly critical eye.  I firmly believe that this is Spike Lee’s greatest accomplishment, and a treasure of African American cinema.  Whether or not you have interest in the subject matter or the man, see this movie as soon as you can.  It’s a masterpiece on every level.  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X gets my highest recommendation.

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John Ford Feature #1 – The Informer (1935)

The_Informer_posterThe Informer (1935)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Dudley Nichols (based on The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty)
Starring: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame, Wallace Ford

As the old adage goes, “snitches get stitches” – this is exactly what John Ford’s early acclaimed drama tries to convey to the audience.  The Informer was a massive hit upon its release in America, grossing more than double its meager budget, as well as widespread critical acclaim.  Ford’s film was nominated for six Academy Awards that year, bringing home four of them despite going head-to-head with that years Best Picture winner Mutiny on the Bounty.  John Ford brought home his first Oscar for Best Director, the film’s star and regular John Ford film actor Victor McLaglen won Best Actor, Dudley Nichols won Best Adapted Screenplay (which he then refused), and the film would also win Best Score.  1935 was a tremendous year for films, with about half of the twelve films nominated for Best Picture still being recognized as truly great or memorable works (Mutiny on the Bounty, Alice Adams, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, and Ruggles of Red Gap). And yet even among that kind of company, Ford’s The Informer still manages to stand out from the crowd as one of the most fondly remembered films of the director’s early talkie career.  Though the famous Western director had made a name for himself with his many silent films starring Harry Carey, The Informer is arguably the point where John Ford became noticed as one of the great directors of the time to look out for.  His film Arrowsmith had also been nominated for Best Picture in 1931, but that film hasn’t endured the test of time the same way this has.

Informer

The Informer follows ex-IRA (Irish Republic Army) foot-soldier Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) shortly after the young man has been kicked out for trying to spare the life of a Black and Tan soldier.  The film takes place in the early 1920’s, when the outlaw IRA were battling the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence.  Our protagonist Gypo has his sights set on America, but first needs to get the money together to allow him passage into the blossoming country.  During a late night walk, Gypo finds that his good friend and former comrade Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) is a wanted man, and the bounty on his head would allow for Gypo’s voyage to America.  He decides to meet with McPhillip, who has been living the life of a fugitive, and has been on the run for six months. Gypo finds out that McPhillip is one his way back to his mother (Una O’Connor) and sister (Heather Angel), making the trip by night to avoid the authorities.  Gypo very quickly makes the decision to become an informer, and alerts the Black and Tans to the presence of McPhillip.  The soldiers surround McPhillip’s family home, and the young fugitive is killed in a vicious gunfight, taking out several Black and Tans on his way out.  Gypo is given the bounty, but now bears the guilt of the death of his colleague weighing on his shoulders.  The new informer decides to drown his sorrows at a local pub, and runs into his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame).  Gypo lies to Katie and tells her that he mugged an American sailor and took the money from him, rather than betraying a former comrade and directly leading to his untimely death.  A now drunk and generous Gypo eventually runs into ex-IRA comrades, who are holding an inquest into the death of Frakie McPhillip.  They know that Gypo was the last man to speak with McPhillip, but can they prove that our protagonist snitched on him to enemy soldiers?  To find out, you’ll have to watch John Ford’s terrific The Informer and see for yourself.

If The Informer is any indication of the caliber of film I’m going to enjoy over the next month, then I can safely say I’ve chosen well.  The film has a very deliberate pacing, and very much feels like an early suspense film, but never slows down for too long.  The tension at the beginning of the film with Gypo roaming the darkened streets of Ireland is incredible, and the moment he sees the wanted poster for somebody who is clearly his friend is unlike any I’ve seen from the period.  Victor McLaglen’s performance as the slow-witted Gypo Nolan is easily the standout in the film, and his constantly conflicted character is not an easy one to get behind because of his actions. Gypo’s intentions are always good, but the way he goes about them are so morally ambiguous that you’re left not quite sure who to root for, which is something I always appreciate in a film.  It’s no wonder McLaglen won the Oscar for Best Actor that year, and I absolutely can’t wait to see him in a few more upcoming Ford films.  The directing technique in the film isn’t quite up to par with what we would come to see in works like Stagecoach (1939), but are still fairly impressive for an early sound film such as this.  Though the “talkie” had been around since the late 1920’s, you can still absolutely tell that Ford was working in an environment he wasn’t 100% comfortable with.  I think that the film would have worked just as well as a silent picture, and even feels like one in moments without music or dialogue.  As I was watching this film, it struck me that I’m going to be able to see this incredible director grow in talent and esteem, and I could not have picked a better film to begin with.  The Informer, though clumsy in small moments, is a terrific, suspenseful, and incredibly well-acted start to a prolific and critically acclaimed career.

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Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) and Barty Mulholland (Joe Sawyer) in 1935’s Best Picture nominee, The Informer.

If you’ve never had the privilege of seeing a John Ford film, I can probably think of better places for new viewers to start.  The Informer is a great film by a great director, but it’s definitely not the absolute best place for one to begin, because it only shows a small amount of what Ford was capable of.  The film is held together by an incredible performance by Victor McLaglen, who very deservedly beat out two of America’s best actors (Charles Laughton and Clark Gable) for Best Actor that year.  The Informer is sure to challenge viewers with its moral ambiguity, and get audiences very excited for what’s to come in Ford’s storied film-making career.  The Informer is highly recommended.

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