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

 

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Movie Review – “The Band Wagon” (1953)

 

Any movie that has a musical number featuring dancing triplet babies that talk about buying a gun they can shoot their other siblings is at least worth a watch in my book.

That, and it is the only movie I’ve ever seen that combines musicals and film noirs. “The Band Wagon” literally has a sequence that plays out like a hard-boiled detective story, complete with femme fatales and over-the-top cheesy narration, while it plays out like ballet with elaborate dance sequences.

I’m not sure I need to say anything else – Babies that want guns and musical film noirs. If that does not peak your interest in “The Band Wagon,” nothing will.

Or it could be that “The Band Wagon” is one of the last big musicals for Fred Astaire, as he plays a role that he was becoming more and more every day – an aging film star that had been forgotten by the Hollywood system and was looking for one last shot to remain in the limelight. Astaire goes all out on his musical numbers, especially one early on in the film where he dances around while getting his shoes shined and playing carnival games.

 

 

If my description of these events sounds odd, it’s only because this movie is odd. The musical numbers are intricate and elaborate, while fully embracing the insane situations, including the now famous “That’s Entertainment!” number that seems like a cut scene from “Singin’ In the Rain.” My personal favorite number is the aforementioned film noir musical bit, if only because I’ve never seen two genres that have nothing in common work so well together.

There are slow parts to “The Band Wagon,” but when this movie gets good, it is impossible to take your eyes off the screen.

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 – “Marty” (1955)

 

 

“Marty” is one of the most simple yet easily relatable movies I’ve seen in a long time, all thanks to its main character and the heartwarming performance of Ernest Borgnine. The film follows the titular Marty, a 34-year old butcher who lives with his mother in New York. He has watched all of his other siblings, both older and younger than him, get married and start up a family of their own, but Marty has resigned himself to the life of a bachelor. Not because he likes the single life, but because he’s tried finding a woman who likes him for himself, and he has only known heartache.

This has given Marty some terrible self-esteem issues, even yelling at his own mother that the reason no woman wants him is because he’s “fat, old, and ugly.” Over the course of the film, we learn about his time with the Army and how he lost his purpose in life upon coming back. This is a normally quiet, kind man who normally keeps to himself, but wants the opportunity to do something with his life, even though no woman will give a chance. That is, until he meets Claire (Betsy Blair), a shy school teacher, at a dance and the two just listen to each others’ problems.

 

 

Borgnine’s performance is the highlight of this movie, giving us a vulnerable role that shows a man who has more than a few problems and a bit of a temper when it comes to those problems. I would describe his role as the flawed every-man. We sympathize with Marty, realizing how fragile he is, but he is relatable for that same reason. Unlike other every-man characters, especially those played by Jimmy Stewart, Borgnine’s character is so wrapped up in his weaknesses that he is blinded to his strengths.

I loved “Marty” for how different it was for the 1950s, at a time when other movies and television wanted to portray the perfect family. That every man should have a nice upper-class job and be the head of the house, while women worked on the house and kids, here’s a film about a damaged man with a job even he looks down on, and cannot find someone to love him. Yet, the film is ultimately an upbeat one about coming to terms with those flaws and loving someone anyway. I came for Ernest Borgnine’s performance, but I was transfixed by how understanding and accepting “Marty” truly was.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973)

 

 

Part of the reason I enjoy the Western genre so much is because of how free it makes me feel. Like I’m the one who is out exploring wild uncharted territory. The old west is whatever you want to make of it, so when we get see men who take advantage of that by manipulating the setting to their own benefit that is when it feels like the Western is at its best.

“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” exemplifies that more than most other Westerns and does that spectacularly through the way its two lead characters use the wild west as their own personal playground. Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is a famous outlaw who has seen that, as he gets older, the world around him seems to be changing. So he decides to quit being a criminal and becomes a sheriff, using his first bit of legal power to hunt down his old friend Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Billy won’t go down without a fight though, and the two spend most of the movie chasing each other, while Pat comes to terms with his new morality and world view, and Billy drinks, shoots, and screws his way through New Mexico with a huge smile.

The film was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who was known for his over-the-top violence in films like “The Wild Bunch.” While this movie has a violent moment here or there, it does take its time to build the rambunctious yet nostalgic world of the old west. It paints the actions of the characters with a longingness for a simpler time and how beautiful it must have felt to own the world if you were good enough with a gun. Pat Garrett longs to be apart of that world again, but knows that it will be ending soon and so he has to change if he’s going to fit in it. Billy still lives in that world and will fight for it to his dying breath.

The film is perfectly summed up near the beginning when Billy asks Pat how it feels to be a man of the law now. Pat responds with, “It feels like times have changed.” Billy follows this up with a big drink of whiskey and says, “Times maybe. But not me.”

 

 

These two don’t share much screentime together, but from that exchange you get how they have built an undying friendship while also establishing an ideological conflict between the two that must come to clash.

From what I understand, the film isn’t accurate on how Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid actually acted, and that might make some people angry, but I see the film as more of an appreciation and love for the old west and the type of lives these men chose to lead. Sam Peckinpah loves the myths these men created and wants to make them legends from a bygone era.

Overall, I adore “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” It is fun, emotional, beautifully-shot and has the best sense of longing for the west than any other Western I have seen. The film takes a simple like cowboys vs. outlaws and turns it on its head, creating a conflict that never gets tiresome, especially when you have two charismatic no-nonsense actors playing your leads.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993)

After I fell in love with “Sleeper,” my interest in Woody Allen had been revitalized. I appreciated films like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Midnight in Paris” a bit more and wanted to explore Allen’s filmography in greater detail, hoping to find more hidden gems that did not feel so narcissistic like “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Now that I’ve watched this strange Woody Allen film, “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” I’ve come to the conclusion that he can be an engaging, wonderful director when his stories are given a purpose and he’s not pointing the camera at himself.

Part of the reason films like “Annie Hall” and “Hannah” leave no impact on me is because they feel so aimless, going from one scene to the next like nothing matters. It is not until Woody Allen sets a distinct plot to follow that his unique narrative charm can come through, as with this film which follows a middle-aged New York couple (played by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton) as their next door neighbor dies unexpectedly. Her husband acts surprisingly calm about her death, so Keaton’s character, Carol, begins to speculate that he murdered the wife, which Allen’s character, Larry, brushes off as her being crazy or looking for trouble.

At first, this is all that happens – wild speculation based on little to no facts. Our protagonists had just met the elder couple the night prior to the death, so they know nothing about their personalities or their marriage. But once Carol starts to take her speculative fiction too far, she ends up finding clues that might link the husband to murder.

 

 

Carol ends up being the focus of “Manhattan Murder Mystery” so Woody Allen’s neurotic and sometimes insufferable nature takes a backseat. He still plays a coward who would rather read a book about how to trim your nose hairs instead of go out and solve a murder, but at least we get to witness a mystery with a great sense of humor about whether our heroes should be involved in this.

The mystery is effective because it all plays out like Carol’s mid-life crisis. Her only son has just gone off to college, she’s had plenty of opportunities to explore the world and is now bored with everything else, constantly looking for something to do. Her husband is a stick in the mud, content with where he’s at, but she wants something adventurous and different, like solving a murder. Every action she takes seems justified because of her thrill-seeking nature. Even if she makes several missteps along the way, like forgetting her reading glasses in the potential murderer’s bedroom, or getting too drunk on wine, Carol’s journey is never boring.

“Manhattan Murder Mystery” starts off innocently enough but continually builds tension, first through rumors that eventually turn into clues and fact, without ever losing its comedic touch. Woody Allen’s neurotic behavior is not as annoying here because it compliments the danger of this situation. While it is not as funny as some of Allen’s other work, the story is solid and the performances compliment the dual tone of the film. This is absolutely a Woody Allen film worth checking out.

Final Grade: B+

 

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