Movie Review – “Black Narcissus” (1947)

 

 

There’s something a tad odd that happens near the beginning of “Black Narcissus,” as our main character, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is told by her sister superior that she will be leading a team of nuns from their home in the United Kingdom into the Himalayas where they will set up a hospital and school for the natives. From that description, you would think this film would be about a culture clash and both sides ultimately learning to respect one another’s values and backgrounds, but it is anything but that. Especially when one of the opening scenes include a very ominous, dimly-lit room, while the sister superior talks and moves like the Emperor from “Star Wars.”

What makes this so odd is that, from a certain twisted perspective, the actions of the nuns throughout the rest of the film supports this point of view. They go into this foreign land with the intent of “helping” it, by teaching them morals and lessons that oppose their world view, destroy many of their ancient relics and throw away their societal beliefs in favor something “better.” One nun even admits at one point that she has a hard time telling them all apart.

“Black Narcissus” portrays the Anglican organization of nuns as a self-absorbed, petty and sometimes ruthless group that wishes to make the rest of the world like them. Honestly, I had John Williams’ Imperial March going through my head throughout most of this movie, imagining Sister Clodagh as Darth Vader and having a blast with this movie.

I think the charm of this movie is that it knows the nuns aren’t doing this for the greater good and are, in some ways, making things worse with their actions with how little they understand this different culture. They stick so close to their orders from higher up that it does make them seem like the villains.

 

 

Or at least, it does that for the organization itself. Over the course of the film, we see how the ideals and standards of being a nun effect these sisters, both physically and psychologically, to the point where some of them feel like they don’t have any identity anymore. These women try to act without emotion or weakness, and it feels like this is slowly killing them. They’re no longer act as individuals and are little more than a cog in a much bigger machine, when they want to be much more than that.

I’ve never seen a film that handles Anglican nuns with such open contempt, while also making them feel so human and relatable, which makes “Black Narcissus” such an odd film.

Outside of that, this is a gorgeous movie, with beautiful, stunning back drops and paintings that make you feel like this is set in the Himalayas. It might be one of the best uses of Technicolor while still having a distinct dim-light feel to it, making it feel atmospheric and moody while still having wonderful visuals, especially when you realize this came out in 1947. For these reasons, I find “Black Narcissus” to be a film that has only gotten better with age.

Final Grade: B+

 

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Movie Review – “All the King’s Men” (1949)

 

 

“All the King’s Men” tells the tale of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a honest and kind man from the fictional state of Konoma who wants to make his town a better place, especially since it seems to be run by gangsters and corrupt politicians. A reporter from a big time newspaper, Jack Burden (John Ireland), writes several articles about Willie that get him noticed across the country, to the point that the political machine wants him to run for Governor of the state to turn the tide of a split vote. This leads Willie down a path of no return when the people fall in love with his ruthless yet powerful words and becomes just as corrupt and crooked as the politicians he originally hated.

I won’t dwell on how this was done better in films like “A Face in the Crowd” and “Citizen Kane,” but I will say that “All the King’s Men” overstays its welcome about halfway through the film and ends up repeating many of the same beats and points many times. The first half of the film is enjoyable due to Crawford’s performance as Willie Stark and how it truly feels like a man who wants a better group of people in the government, while John Ireland plays a reporter who falls in love with those ideas.

 

 

But a little bit over halfway through the film, it gets off the pleasant highway and gets stuck on a horse-racing track where it keeps going in circles for far longer than it needed to.

After a certain point, these characters just feel like a bunch of brick walls that refuse to learn or change their stances, even as many events happen that should change them. Willie remains a brute, Jack stubbornly stays by his side even though he really shouldn’t, and ultimately neither of them really learn anything. It’s like watching a toddler who refuses to play with more than one toy, except now that toddler is a gangster politician, and now it becomes infuriating.

Overall, while there’s a strong message absolute power corrupting, “All the King’s Men” could have stand to lose some repetitive scenes, especially in the second half. It gets to the point where all of these characters, that started out likable and relatable enough, become irredeemable pricks that have lost all heart and meaning. As a result, it often felt like this film had no soul.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “Road to Morocco” (1942)

 

 

There is an undeniable charm to “Road to Morocco” that I’ve never seen in any movie before. Maybe it’s because of the volatile yet infectious relationship between its two lead characters, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, where they simultaneously love and hate one another, leading some of wonderfully crafted insults. Maybe it’s because of how it expertly spoofs adventure tales of the 1930s and 1940s, while still creating its own identity with its self-referential humor. Or maybe it’s the opening musical number that perfectly describes the style and tone of the film.

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Whether you’ve seen this movie or not, or any of the “Road to…” movies with Crosby and Hope, you are probably at least familiar with its style of screwball and fourth-wall break humor that is always good for laugh. Many other famous TV shows and movies have done countless parodies of these movies, with the most famous examples being several episodes of “Family Guy.” And while many of those parodies are charming in their own right, none of them can really compare to the wisecracks and desperate nature of Hope and Crosby’s relationship and their performances.

“Road to Morocco” follows our two “heroes” Jeff Peters (Crosby) and Orville Jackson (Hope) after their freighter in the Atlantic ocean explodes (they were the cause of the explosion) and the two are adrift at sea until they finally land in Morocco. They eventually reach a town, where Jeff sells Orville to some shady man in a bar, saying that they both need the money. After feeling (somewhat) guilty, Jeff eventually decides to track down his friend and learns that he’s living in the lap of luxury, having been betrothed and is to be married to exotic princess (Dorothy Lamour). Jeff, of course, cannot stand seeing Orville so happy and has to intervene.

 

 

I never thought that two drastically different actors like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope could be the funniest duo since Abbott and Costello, but the two have a zany yet spiteful time together. Crosby is calm and collected and is as smooth as his singing, while Hope feels like a fusion of Charlie Chaplin’s facial expressions and Groucho Marx’s wit, giving his a man who moves and acts more like a cartoon than a human. Together, the two of them form a foundation that is built on dynamite and marshmallows.

Everyone owes it to themselves to see at least one “Road to…” movie in their lifetime, if only to see the strange yet charming back-and-forth between Hope and Crosby, and “Road to Morocco” is a wonderful place to start.

Final Grade: A

Movie Review – “Gilda” (1946)

 

 

Imagine if they took the love-hate dynamic relationship between Rick Blaine and Ilsa from “Casablanca” but focused much more on the hate side, and you’ll get something pretty close to “Gilda.” The contempt and jealousy throughout this film is thick, as our two former love birds fight for the only thing that matters to them, control over the other.

Set in Bueno Aries during and after World War II, we follow gambler Johnny Farrow (Glenn Ford) who is down on his luck having just moved from New York to Argentina. Johnny is rescued by the friendly owner of a high-class casino, Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who eventually takes in Johnny as his right-hand man. But things take a strange turn when Mundson leaves for a little while and returns with his new bride, Gilda (Rita Hayworth). It is quickly established that Johnny and Gilda have a history together, a relationship that meant a lot to the two of them but ended badly.

Gilda takes absolute delight in messing with Johnny’s head, flaunting her sexuality and authority over him being his bosses wife. Johnny, on the other hand, goes out of his way to make sure Gilda has a terrible time in Argentina while serving as her body guard. This leads to a war of attrition and insults between Johnny and Gilda, where both admit they’re fine with destroying themselves as long as they take the other down with them.

While we never learn the details of the previous relationship between Gilda and Johnny, the performances by Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford tells us everything we need to know. The way these two look at each other with such hatred and ferocity, yet cannot take their eyes off each other, shows how deep their contempt goes.

 

 

While their dynamic is the backbone of the movie, it is sold by just how sexy Rita Hayworth looks throughout this movie. She’s less a femme fatale and more so a temptress driven by a grudge against one man. There is not a single moment in this film where Rita doesn’t look attractive or isn’t trying to flaunt her beauty.

But ultimately, “Gilda” is a film about control. Our two leads fight throughout the film to show they are superior to the other and their feelings for the other. They’re always looking for a new weakness or way to manipulate the other, even if it’s something as simple as a jab using insults. Even the third player in all this, Mundson, seeks to control everything from his casino, to Johnny and his wife, even demanding control of how the world will be shaped following World War II. All of these people crave and demand power over other people, which they feel is the only power worth having.

Overall, “Gilda” is a powerful romantic thriller, with some great sets and atmosphere with its casino backdrop set in Argentina. Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth are mesmerizing together and have one of the best love-hate relationships in cinema. This is never a dull moment while Rita Hayworth is around, and this is her crowning achievement.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “To Be or Not to Be” (1942)

 

 

There is a distinct charm to “To Be or Not to Be” that is unlike any other film I have seen. The main reason for this is that this is one of the few films that turned the Nazis and Hitler into a farce while we were in the middle of World War II. There were plenty of films that depicted the Nazis as evil and the worst thing that has ever happened to the world, especially during the mid-1940s, but little to no comedies. The only other that comes to mind is Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” which is interesting since both films were made by filmmakers who had direct stakes in Hitler’s march through Europe.

Director Ernst Lubitsch, originally from Poland, made a movie that not only treated Hitler like a bad joke, but also shows the strength and resolve of the Polish people. “To Be or Not to Be” is enduring because of smaller characters, like the Polish bit-player in a theater troupe who quotes “Hamlet” when he witnesses the destruction the Nazis cause. Little moments like that which show the vulnerable side while also juggling the comedic aspect makes this a movie worth seeing.

 

 

The film follows a theater troupe based in Warsaw, Poland who want to put on a play that satirizes the Nazis and Hitler but ends up getting cancelled the night the Germans invade Poland. Some time after this, a professor-turned-spy for the Nazis secretly gets his hands on a list of names associated with the Polish underground resistance movement and heads back from England to Poland to give the Gestapo the names. A young Polish pilot, Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack), hears about the professor’s plans and heads back to Poland to stop him from reaching the Gestapo. The first person he reaches out to is the leading lady of the theater troupe, Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), which quickly involves her husband Joseph (Jack Benny) and the rest of the troupe as they masquerade as Nazis and the Gestapo to fool just about everyone else.

The star of the movie is Jack Benny, who takes absolute delight in his ability to fool everyone with his acting talents, proving to himself that he is the greatest actor alive. The best scenes are with him, pretending to be the professor, interacting with the head of the Gestapo, Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman). These two have the most inflated egos and take every opportunity to pump more air into theirs just to impress the other.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with “To Be or Not to Be.” The plot is a bit confusing at times, especially once Sobinski lands back in Poland, but once Jack Benny has to go undercover as a Nazi spy, everything turns into comedic gold. Yet the film never loses its human charm with its representation of the Polish people in the face of such adversity. Without saying too much or too little, it says everything that needed to be said about Hitler and the Nazis.

Final Grade: B

 

Movie Review – “Murder, My Sweet” (1944)

 

 

One of the lesser appreciated aspects of a film noir is that most of them tell similar yet intriguing stories about seedy darker worlds and the equally seedy people that inhabit them. If you’ve seen one film noir, then you’re at least aware of how the narrative works and what separates it from other genres, especially thrillers. This is a type of filmmaking lives in darkness and sin, filled with dirty people trying to claw for light and hope.

But what makes “Murder, My Sweet” so special is that, while it feels familiar, the film takes a different route when it comes to visuals and editing that separate it from other noirs like “The Big Sleep” or “Out of the Past.” Much like “Double Indemnity” lives and dies by its witty dialogue, “Murder, My Sweet” hinges on its seedy underground cinematography, focusing heavily on eyes and obscuring the visuals, as well as the truth.

The film follows the famous private detective Phillip Marlowe (Dick Powell), a man who isn’t afraid to speak his mind even if that gets him in trouble, after he has been captured by the police with bandages over his eyes. The cops have him here because they suspect he murdered two people, so he recalls the last few days to the police, telling us about his encounter with a mountain of a man named Moose (Mike Mazurki) who is looking for his missing wife, a wealthy man named Marriot (Douglas Walton) who hires Marlowe on as a bodyguard and winds up dead on the beach, leading Phillip to hunt down what was happening and to a necklace made of jade.

 

 

One small aspect that I particularly enjoyed about “Murder, My Sweet” was that it was easy to follow for a film noir. Normally, there are so many characters to keep track of in these movies, most of them either doing shady dealings off-screen or have been dead for a long time that this makes it hard to remember who’s who, especially when the double crossing and back stabbing begins. I had no trouble remembering the characters in this film, mostly because it was a small cast and each of them had a distinct look or attitude. Marlowe spends the majority of the film actively trying to solve the case instead of pontificating about some of the smaller details, so that helped as well.

What I will remember the most about “Murder, My Sweet” was the distinct cinematography. I cannot think of other film noirs that have a drug-induced nightmare sequence, or have crazy dissolves that show our narrator passing out like his world is being flooded with black goo. This film played more with perspective and eyes than any other noir and it compliments a dark and disturbing nature of the story.

Overall, “Murder, My Sweet” may not feel too different from other film noirs, but the look of it is unique and it gives the movie an undeniable charm. The dialogue is witty like “Double Indemnity” and the narration gives this city an extra layer of filth. Dick Powell’s performance as Phillip Marlowe gives the character levity and a bit more heart than you would expect. If you’re interested in a lesser known film noir that is just as great as any other, give this one a shot.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” (1949)

 

 

I’m currently at the point where I’ve seen so many westerns about the cavalry fighting Native Americans that they are all blending together now. I honestly did not care about the plot of “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” because it has been done to death. What makes westerns of this caliber stand out among the vast range of competing films is not plot or characters, but anything else eye-catching. Something unique that the viewer will remember long after the movie is finished.

For “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” that would be its use of Technicolor. There is a distinct charm to Technicolor films that you do not see in today’s films, where certain colors feel drained and others practically pop off the screen. If there is one color that was made for that type of camera work it would be red. The setting sun and its reach across the tall clouds was mesmerizing in this movie. I could have stared at the backgrounds for hours. Though it certainly helps that the film was mostly shot in Monument Valley, which John Ford always knows how to capture perfectly.

Overall, “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” is an average western tale that is bolstered by some colorful cinematography. I found myself being more entertained when the film did not focus on its characters and instead let the calm feeling of Monument Valley set in. The film does not do anything terrible, so if you’re bored and want to watch an okay John Ford western, then give this one a shot.

Final Grade: C