By Ed Garea
If anyone out there is wondering why this column has been on hiatus, the answer is simple: TCM’s overblown “31 Days of Oscar,” in which we see the same old same old with nary a break into something not seen in quite a while, namely a foreign film or an independent. But now that it’s over, things are back on track and will be – at least until August, when TCM does the same old “Summer Under the Stars” filmfest. So enjoy reviews of these films for the week of March 8-14.
11:15 am The Narrow Margin (RKO, 1952) – Director: Richard Fleischer. Cast: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Gordon Gebart, and Queenie Leonard. B&W, 71 min.
I’ll give you the plot to this fascinating film in a nutshell: Hard-boiled cop McGraw must transport gangster’s widow Windsor – against his will, no less – to the trial where she’ll be the star witness. Along the way he has to dodge the hit men whose orders are to take them both out. Leonard Maltin says it’s one of the best B’s ever made – and I can’t disagree. A fast-paced film with a great claustrophobic setting aboard the train where there is truly no escape. It was remade in 1990 as Narrow Margin with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer. While that’s a good movie, it’s nowhere as good as the original.
8:00 pm Rome, Open City (Excelsa, 1945) – Director: Roberto Rossellini. Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Vito Annichiarico, Nando Bruno, and Harry Feist. B&W, 100 min.
I’ve been in love with this film ever since I was blown away by it during my film appreciation course. I watch it every time it’s shown. It’s a powerful account of the uprising by the Italian underground against their German occupiers before the liberation of Rome in 1944. Considered by many film historians as the first of the school of films known as Italian Neorealism, it was shot in the actual apartments and streets of Rome. This gives it an almost documentary feel and a sense of instant immediacy to the audience. That’s what pulls the viewer in. The screenplay was by Rossellini, Federico Fellini, and Sergio Amidei. It’s also the film that catapulted Anna Magnani to international stardom – watch for her as the soulful Pina.
10:00 pm Paisan (OFI, 1946) – Director: Roberto Rossellini. Cast: Carmela Sazio, Robert Van Loon, Benjamin Emanuel, Raymond Campbell, Harold Wagner, and Albert Heinze. B&W, 120 min.
To watch American films about the Italian Campaign in World War II, we would assume that everything was wonderful and went hunky-dory. Of course, that wasn’t the case, so this film will give the viewer more of a real taste of what it was like to be that campaign and to be one of the civilians. This is a six-episode look at the relationship between the liberators and the liberated and follows the Italian campaign from 1943 to 1944. A nonprofessional cast mainly improvised it, though it boasts a screenplay by Rossellini and Fellini. It’s a must-see and a keeper.
12:15 am Germany, Year Zero (Tevere, 1948) – Director: Roberto Rossellini. Cast: Edmund Moeschke, Ernst Pittschau, Ingetraud Hinze, Franz-Otto Kruger, and Erich Guhne. B&W, 78 min.
This is the third film in Rossellini’s famous “War Trilogy.” The other two were seen earlier. Rossellini now turns his eye to an utterly defeated and devastated Berlin, Germany, where young Edmund must do all sorts of work and resort of all kinds of tricks if he and his family are to survive. If he cannot work, he will steal and deal on the black market. He even allows an old teacher he once studied under to caress him for a couple of marks. If you see Edmund as Germany itself, the movie really opens up, and if you don’t like sad finales, then do not watch. It is a stunning panorama of the results of total war, again made with a nonprofessional cast.
3:30 am The Rules of the Game (Janus, 1939) – Director: Jean Renoir. Cast: Nora Gregor. Jean Renoir, Marcel Dalio, Roland Toutain, Mila Parley, Odette Talazac, and Pierre Magnier. B&W 110 min.
Made on the eve of war, this is Jean Renoir’s biting satire of the French middle class, their foibles, rituals, and most of all, their class distinctions. An assorted cast of characters – the rich and their servants – meet at a French chateau for a little fun and games, and no one escaped the rapier of Renoir’s satire as romantic intrigues, both upstairs and downstairs, play out. A heavy hand at the helm could have sunk this movie before it gets going, but Renoir keeps a light and skillful touch at all times. His fluid camerawork and adept staging still keeps this film seeming fresh after all this time.
Despite claims by film historians that it’s one of the best films ever made, it almost didn’t see the light of day. First, the French government, calling it bad for morale, delayed its release for a little over a month. Then, upon the German Occupation, the Nazis also banned it destroying quite a few prints of it. As if that wasn’t enough, the original negatives were destroyed during an Allied bombing. In 1956, Renoir’s friends helped him track down many missing bits and pieces of the movie. Except for one scene, the film was entirely reconstituted.
2:00 am Made In U.S.A. (Sepic, 1966) – Director: Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Anna Karina, Laszlo Szabo, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Yves Alfonso, Ernest Menzer, and Jean-Claude Bouillon. Color, 90 min.
I can only repeat what I said in my “Best Bets:” This is a witty and wry sort of political noir essentially about people that behave as if they’re living in a movie. Self-appointed private eye (Karina) is investigating the death of her former lover. As she progresses the bodies begin to pile up, awash in stage blood. In addition, Godard uses backdrops colored in vivid primary colors of blue, red and yellow that reaches out and grabs our attention. Neon signs and electronic news ribbons dominate their scenes. When Karina removes her trench coat she’s garbed in some kind of clingy dress in loud pop art colors, further hypnotizing the viewer. Notice the police chasing her: Godard, who loves cultural references (Where do you think Tarantino stole it from?), names his cops Paul Widmark, (director) Donald Siegel (Karina is named Paula Nelson, a reference to Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson starring Mickey Rooney), Robert McNamara, and Richard Nixon. (Also look for allusions to characters in American movies.) Watch Karina break down the fourth wall with comments such as, “You can fool the audience, but not me.” Ignore Godard’s pretentious Marxist rantings – and yes, the film does get lost in itself – but just sit back and concentrate on Karina. She combines a sexual intellectualism with a playful flirtiness that left me in complete awe, and totally in love. Don’t miss this one. One critic called it “Walt Disney with blood.” I can’t improve on that description.
6:00 am The Shanghai Gesture (UA, 1941) – Director: Josef von Sternberg. Cast: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Ona Munson, Victor Mature, and Phyliss Brooks. B&W, 95 min.
If what The Shanghai Gesture means giving the middle finger to the audience, then this Von Sternberg film hits the target. This is a pathetic piece of celluloid that at times threatens to disintegrate into a complete laugh riot. Get this – Poppy (Gene Tierney) is out for a night's fun in Shanghai when she stumbles into the sin emporium of Mother Gin Sling (originally Mother Godamm in the play). Mother, played so over the top by Ona Munson (yet another Asian with blue eyes) is taking a role Von Sternberg would have given to Anna May Wong in the 30s (she would have done far better), with a variation of Poppy being played by Marlene Dietrich. The casino, with its Art Deco decor, is more suited to Los Angeles than Shanghai.
Best of all is the awaited entrance of Mother Gin Sling. Though Von Sternberg clearly wants it to be show stopping, all it does is remind us of when the curtain went up on King Kong in New York. And with a hairdo and dress that looks like her stylist was Cher. Meanwhile, Poppy has fallen under the spell of Doctor Omar (Victor Mature). If you want a real belly laugh, check out Mature in this role. Peter Lorre as Doctor Omar, okay, but Victor Mature? At any rate, Omar leads Poppy into an ever-spiraling addiction to gambling and drugs. And he works fast, considering that the movie is only 98 minutes long. Now enter Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), in a role clearly evoking Sydney Greenstreet. Seems Sir Guy has bought a large slice of Shanghai, including the ground on which Mother has her den of inequity, so Mother has to vamoose from the premises by the coming Chinese New Year. (Von Sternberg's great for this sort of plotting.) Not so fast, however, for Mother Gin Sling suddenly remembers that she was once married to Sir Guy and that he abandoned her while taking her family's fortune. Amazingly, Sir Guy does not recognize her; guess all Chinese look the same to him. Mother plans her revenge by inviting Sir Guy to a Chinese New Year's party he'll never forget. At the party, Sir Guy turns the tables by revealing to Mother that, indeed, she is a mother: Poppy is their daughter! How Gin Sling couldn't accurately remember giving birth is just one of those things the audience has to overlook. Well, Mother's just not the mothering type, if you know what I mean, so we can all guess what happens to dear Poppy. By the way, also check out the hat Mother wears throughout the film. She looks like something out of a broken down carnival.
9:45 pm The House on 92nd Street (20th Century Fox, 1945) – Director: Henry Hathaway. Cast: William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll. B&W, 89 min.
Henry Hathaway’s fast-moving, exciting semi-documentary is based on fact – namely the FBI’s successful take down of a Nazi spy ring working in New York during the war. Set on some of the same actual locations, it’s concerned with the Nazi attempt to steal atom bomb secrets. Aside from Lloyd Nolan, not a real star cast, yet everyone in it is impeccably good (with several real FBI agents in bit roles), and Hathaway clearly shows his mettle as a director. By the way, a trivial note: the film marks the screen debut of E.G. Marshall.
For other Cinema Inhabituel films, click here.