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-

 

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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

 

Movie Review – “Brief Encounter” (1945)

 

 

There’s a certain charm to movies that were restricted due to war efforts, especially European films made during World War II. The 1946 French version of “Beauty and the Beast” is possibly the best example of that, with its grand fantastical scope while being made under Nazi occupation, while others like “Rome, Open City” and the entirety of the Italian Neorealism film movement changed the way on-location filming was handled.

But British filmmakers handled it differently from the French and Italians. In France, they most made films to distract from the war and take the audience away from the pain. Italy embraced that pain and suffering, showing just how terrible war can be on the common man. But the British chose to focus on telling grounded yet sympathetic stories where our cast of characters often find hope in a bleak world where love seems lost.

One of the best examples of this is David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” a tale about Laura (Celia Johnson), a married woman trying to lead a normal life in the middle of WW2, whose life becomes far more complicated when she has a chance encounter with a complete stranger, Alec (Trevor Howard). The two slowly but surely fall in love and this leaves Laura in a difficult position with her husband and children.

 

 

“Brief Encounter” is like if “Mrs. Miniver” was made on an extremely limited budget and did not have the benefit any big name stars, instead relying on realism and film noir-like lighting and sets. Laura desperately tries to run her life like the war does not exist, but it is taking a colossal psychological toll on her. Without ever showing a bullet or bombshell explosion, this movie emphases how bleak and empty life is when there’s someone so close by that wants to exterminate your way of life.

Yet at the same time, the film offers a ray of hope and optimism with Alec, who makes every moment matter. The relationship between these two feels genuine, especially when you see the utter joy Alec brings to Laura’s life.

I’d recommend “Brief Encounter” over “Mrs. Miniver” because of how authentic and genuine Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s performances feel, as well as David Lean’s superb use of camera angles and lighting. The film is minimalist, but that certainly gives it a distinct charm.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Mrs. Miniver” (1942)

 

 

Perhaps the title of this film is a lie. Nowadays, you go into a film named after a particular character expecting it to be about that person. But “Mrs. Miniver” is less about its protagonist and more of how the British home front dealt with the German invasion at the beginning of World War II. While we see a large portion of this war from Greer Garson’s perspective, we see how this fight effects everyone around her, including her American husband (Walter Pidgeon), their Oxford-grad son who goes off into the war, the girl he ends up falling in love with (Teresa Wright) and many of the townsfolk like the smug old rich Lady Beldon and the quiet yet kind bell-ringer who names a flower after Mrs. Miniver.

Our protagonist mostly ends up being a witness to many of the selfless acts these characters take for the sake of the war and for each other. There’s a large scene in the middle when the men in the town get together, led by Mr. Miniver, and send every boat they have to head out to Dunkirk. The scene has nothing to do with Greer Garson’s character, but shows the comradery and bravery of these men who would risk everything to protect their fellow man. And while Garson handles her role with pride and a suave demeanor, she is left with little to do outside of showing the resolve of the British people.

 

 

Her one true moment to shine comes when she finds a wounded Nazi-pilot in a bush near her house. The pilot looks like her son, so she is unsure if she should turn him in or help him. But it is clear that she is terrified, especially when he points a gun at her and begins making demands.

“Mrs. Miniver” is, for lack of a better term, effective propaganda. Made in 1942 for mostly American audiences, the film was made to show the rest of the world how the British were struggling against the Nazis and to show what the rest of the world was fighting for. It was created as a way to push those who were unsure about the war into helping in any way possible. And in this regard “Mrs. Miniver” excels in presenting Americans with a great example of why we fight to protect our way of life, and show that it is a life worth fighting for.

Overall, “Mrs. Miniver” does a fine job as a wartime melodrama. It gives a much larger picture of how Britain was affected by the German invasion and the constant fear that plagued the people. The true strength of the film comes from how these people react to that fear.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “The Major and the Minor” (1942)

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Recently, I’ve done a bit of research on screwball comedies, in particular how to tell the difference between a screwball comedy and a romantic comedy and why screwballs died out. In films like “The Philadelphia Story” and “The Lady Eve,” it is the overbearing or controlling woman that dominates the weak and incompotent man, a reversal of the typical gender roles in the 1930s and 1940s.

Movies like “Some Like It Hot” and “Bringing Up Baby” are about mascunlinty being challenged through a comedic battle of the sexes. This thrived because women holding all the power in a relationship was new to Hollywood.

But what truly separates screwballs from rom-coms is this challenge is done almost entirely through heated verbal exchanges, always charged with sexual energy. Film critic Andrew Sarris once described the screwball comedy as “a sex comedy without the sex.” All these films came out at a time of strict censorship when filmmakers couldn’t show anything related to sex or hold a kiss for longer than three seconds, so they had to get creative by having sex through word play.

If a man and woman can’t kiss each other, they’ll sass each other.

By doing this, it allowed filmmakers to tell far more riske plots that wouldn’t have been picked up normally. Case in point, 1942’s “The Major and the Minor.” The story follows strong-willed Suzanne Applegate (Ginger Rogers) quitting the New York lifestyle, having tried over 30 jobs in two years and hating them all. She decides to head back to her home in Iowa, only to find out she doesn’t have enough train fare. So she dresses up as a 12-year old girl, Susu, to pay half fare and ends up falling into a cabin with Army Major Kirby (Ray Milland), who buys that she is a little girl, but she slowly falls in love with him.

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“The Major and the Minor” would not work in theaters nowadays, since it would be portrayed as a romantic comedy and it would be hard to avoid the pedophilia. But since this is a screwball comedy, of course the man is oblivious to the woman’s plan or her advances. He doesn’t see her as anything more than a child that he can help, the poor dolt.

Director Billy Wilder takes every advantage possible to show that not only Major Kirby is incompotent, but every single man in the movie. Despite trying to be a 12-year old girl, not a single male on the army training base buys the disguise, except for Major Kirby, who is too kind and honest for his own good. Every Private on the base wants a moment alone with Susu, even the ones in committed relationships, to remind her how the Germans conquered the Sudan if you catch my drift.

There are enough twists and turns in “The Major and the Minor” to keep the story from getting dull and more than enough charm in the writing to keep the laughs coming. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and he gives every line just enough sass without being too obvious or overbearing. My favorite scene is when Major Kirby has to teach Susu about the birds and the bees, due to all the boys hitting on her, and describes her as a lightbulb attracting all the moths and that she needs to learn to turn that lightbulb down a bit, never aware that Susu has probably killed a few moths in her time.

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Is this the greatest screwball comedy? No, “Some Like It Hot” and “The Lady Eve” excel at turning the gender roles on their heads and spinning it around a few thousand times, but there is no denying “The Major and the Minor” is hysterical, if not a bit ludicrous, and is engaging because of Wilder’s script and the performances of Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, who give two of the most genuine and honest performances I can think of.

Ultimately, the reason the screwball genre died out was because MPAA ratings system and the creation of R-rated films in the 1970s, as well as how modern sensbilities had changed over the years, especially the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Some elements of the screwball are still used in modern films, but the whole point of the screwball comedy is no longer valid with the strict rules of 1930s and 1940s filmmaking no longer in place. Even without those rules anymore, “The Major and the Minor” is certainly a film worth checking out.

Final Grade: A