Movie Review – “Mildred Pierce” (1945)

 

 

Sometimes a genre choice can turn a downtrodden and repetitive story into a memorable and fascinating movie, like 1945’s “Mildred Pierce.” When I first heard the premise of this movie – the tale of a recently divorced mother (Joan Crawford) working her fingers to the bone so that her ungrateful, spoiled daughter (Ann Blyth) can live a luxurious lifestyle – I was reminded of “Imitation of Life” and the often unrecognized soap-opera-like struggle that Lana Turner’s character goes through. But much to my surprise, “Mildred Pierce” turned all of that on its head by presenting its story as a film noir or thriller.

Instead of the mother’s fight for her daughter’s approval turning into a predictable tragedy, it turns into a mystery fueled by greed, jealousy and a lust for more power and control. Since the film opens up with the murder of man in Mildred’s beach house, that sinister feeling is always lurking throughout this movie, even when she has the best intentions.

There’s always an air of uncertainty to every action the titular character takes, whether she’s really doing all of this for her daughter or if she has other selfish motives, like the sleazy men she keeps around that somehow keep back stabbing her at her most vulnerable moments. Yet, at the same time, there’s charm and class throughout this film, as Joan Crawford masterfully plays the role of a hardworking mother who wants to earn the respect of everyone, even those who she has no reason to like.

 

 

At the center though, “Mildred Pierce” is about a family love that has been twisted out of shape so much that both mother and daughter have forgotten what love really looks like. Both characters are so caught up in their worlds, one of hard work and another of high class society living, that they can’t see beyond that and will do whatever it takes to get the other to see it their way, inadvertently driving both further away from one another. They both feel that love is something that can be found in a store and has a price tag, which makes the tragedy of their honest actions even more heartbreaking.

Overall, “Mildred Pierce” is much better than I expected it to be. I went in thinking it would be similar to “Dark Victory” or “Jezebel” with more emphasis on family, and instead I got a gripping film noir about a hard working woman’s life turning into something bitter. There is some stellar acting from Crawford and Ann Blyth, both selling every greedy and selfish turn masterfully. There is never a boring moment in “Mildred Pierce,” which is very strange for me to say.

Final Grade: A

 

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Movie Review – “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943)

 

 

Part of the appeal of the western is the raw, unbridled battle between good and evil. This genre is a window to a time and place where men took the law into their own hands, where modern society and its rules weren’t anyone’s concern yet and we could be as barbaric, chaotic or strong as we wanted to be – the only code around was your own personal code of honor. But as exhilarating and rewarding as these movies can get, there are just as many westerns that turn these ideals on their head to give us a more tragic and sympathetic tale of the west. Films like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Unforgiven” pull this off wonderfully, but another great western morality tale is William A. Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow Incident.”

The film is set in a miniscule town in Nevada that has been devastated by cattle-rustlers lately. When the town gets word of another attack that leaves one of their kindest and most well-liked cattle farmers dead, they’ve all had enough of not doing anything and waiting for the law to bring in these evil-doers. So when most of the town folks find out where the cattle-rustlers are heading, they form a posse hell-bent on taking care of these murderers on their own, even though the sheriff is no where to be found and the local judge says that what they’re doing isn’t legal. Many others tag along, including passer-by Gil Carter (Henry Fonda), in an attempt to keep all this as level-headed and orderly as possible.

What follows is a tale about passion and anger overriding logic and civility. These men are quick to judge and act of their own accord, including the deputy sheriff who deputizes everyone in the posse despite not having that power, or the former civil war Major who takes command of the situation even though no one asked him to. They’ve lived in the west so long that they don’t see how law and order can solve this situation – these dangerous men only understand bloodshed and swift action, so they must respond in kind.

 

 

But the strength of “The Ox-Bow Incident” comes from how you understand where the towns folk are coming from. They immigrated from all the corners of the globe to start a new life where decent and honest men could thrive, and now the only thing they’ve ever held dear is being taken away from them. These aren’t bad people, they’re just so caught up in their own sense of right and wrong that they’ve grown impatient and angry at the world. This is their way of lashing out.

Of course, that only makes this tragic tale even more sympathetic. Like watching a peaceful protest turn into an angry mob.

I would argue that “The Ox-Bow Incident” is one of the most important and significant westerns ever made. Because it was made in 1943, when the genre was just reaching its peak, this film challenged the status quo by muddling its morals and sense of right and wrong, to the point where you’re not sure who to root for anymore. It shows a vulnerable and unpleasant side to a setting that is often romanticized and glorified, giving us possibly the most flawed yet human western tale of its time.

Final Grade: A

 

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+

 

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.

road to 1

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