IMDB #188 The Best Years Of Our Lives

We're getting very familiar with war at this point, but today we explore what happens afterward for the first time in the postwar classic The Best Years Of Our Lives.

A Best Picture winner (and six other Oscars besides), it was the hugest success since Gone With The Wind back in 1946 (we're talking like Shrek-level money). Will it live up to the hype? And at a staggering 2:42 in length, will I stay awake the whole time?

The Key Players:

When William Wyler isn't making romantic comedies, he makes really long epic-type movies.

The film focuses on three soldiers, played by Frederic March, a multiple Tony and Oscar winner (A Star Is Born, Inherit The Wind); Dana Andrews (Laura, The Ox-Bow Incident); and Harold Russell, who never any other major roles for reasons soon apparent.

In support are screen legend Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, once again playing a small-town sweetheart.

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The Story:

Three GIs return home to Boone City, a midwestern town in an unamed (I think?) state. Al (March) is a middle aged sergeant returning to a life as a banking executive with a family. Fred (Andrews) is a younger soda fountain clerk who had just married when he shipped off. And Homer (Russell) is a pink-faced sailor who unfortunately lost both hands in an explosion at sea, though he's handy as all get out with the hook protheses that replaced them- Harold Russell was a real-life veteran amputee, a non-professional actor that lost them in a training accident.

There are some joyous but awkward reunions to start: Al's family, including his wife Millie (Loy) and grown daughter Peggy (Wright) are overjoyed to see him, but he's edgy and decides to take them out on the town. Fred can't find his wife, who's found work at a nightclub downtown. Homer's family and young fiance are happy to see him, but have trouble treating him regularly- either staring at his prothetics are obviously avoiding looking.

Fred runs into Al and co. out on the town (Boone City somehow has a remarkably happening nightlife), and both soldiers end up so plastered that Millie and Peggy take them home and put them to bed. In the morning Peggy makes Fred breakfast and gives him a ride the work, the two seeming to get along well.

Al goes back to work, but approves a risky loan for a fellow veteran to his boss's chagrin. Later he gives a rousing, half-drunk speech at a dinner in his honor about the future of the country and his willingness to bet on it (or something). It's a small wonder he doesn't get fired.

Fred meanwhile, is falling for Peggy they share a chaste kiss, but her father and Fred's conscience intervene to call it off- even though Fred's wife is a shrill, materialistic woman that he realizes he hardly knows.

And Homer starts to push Wilma away in self-pity and despair. Fred gets fired from his reclaimed soda-fountain job, and Al starts drinking all the time. What's a soldier to do?

The Artistry:

I have to say, I started the film, and a little later checked the length- 2:42! What? No way could I watch it all in one sitting.

Or so I thought. Afer a slow first hour or so, the mechanics of The Best Years Of Our Lives really picks up, owing especially to the love triangle and Russell's strong performance- one the Academy saw fit to reward with an honorary Oscar, even though he was up for Best Supporting Actor.

The chemisty between Wright and Andrews might have been my favorite part- it's one of those rushed romances that might be hard to buy (like when boring detective guy falls for her in Shadow Of A Doubt), but their energy together sold it for me. And the film doesn't go out of its way to paint his wife as a shrew- he forces her to stop working, so her complaints about his lack of income are pretty legit. They're just not right for each other. The moment when Wright tells her parents "I'm going to break that marriage up!" I totally pumped my fist- that seems like a bold thing to get an audience to root for in 1946 after all. Consider the deathly seriousness that A Brief Encounter treated the very idea of infidelity with a year earlier.

March and Loy have a fittingly complex relationship, but you can see why they'd love each other- there's a great scene where they explain to their daughter how much loving someone can be a struggle when she claims they've had it easy all their lives.

And I have to mention Gregg Toland's cinematography- there's a standout scene near the end when Andrews relives flying in a bomber that simulates a takeoff with camera-movement that stands out- though Hugo Friedhofer's score helps immensely- when it's not being typically 40's bombastic.


Al keeps drinking, but measuredly- Wilma gets it through Homer's think skull that she loves him no matter what, and Fred's wife up and divorces him.

He runs into Peggy at Homer's wedding, and it ends with a kiss. Aw.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher. Not emphatically, but I liked it a lot more than I would've guessed. It's not an extensive psychodrama (PTSD wasn't a commonly accepted disorder until post-Vietnam), but it has elements of that "never the same again" feeling (I think the title is supposed to be ironic), and it's a compelling drama on its own.

The Legacy:

Seven Oscars: Picture, Director, Editing, Score, Screenplay, Actor (for March) and Supporting Actor for Russell- who with the honorary took home two for the same role. Also NFR, AFI, and so on, not to mention box office reciepts that would be plus $400 million in today's money.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

"I've made up my mind."
"To do what?"
"...I'm going to break that marriage up!"

Leftover Thoughts:

-Not clear to me why Virginia Mayo (Andrews' characters' wife) is on the poster despite being the smallest role in the ensemble.

Coming Up...

Tue, June 1st: 187. The Exorcist

Fri, June 4th: 186. Kind Hearts and Coronets

Tue, June 8th: 185. Children Of Men

IMDB #189 The Kid

We've already dabbled in silent-era comedy with Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! some time ago, and at some point we'll also cover Buster Keaton's stunt-work opus The General. But there's no greater comic genius than Charlie Chaplin, who makes the first of four trips with 1921's The Kid, the earliest film on the countdown.

The Key Players:

In 1914, Chaplin was a bit player for Keystone Studios, and was told to put on a funny getup for a short film- he grabbed baggy pants, a tight sportcoat, a small derby hat, and applied his signature small mustache and The Tramp was born.

He would connect with audiences through this funny visage for decades, with a funny walk, not a penny to his name, and his heart on his sleeve. It was The Tramp's often foiled quest for love that hooked people upon his debut Post-WWI, but his economic struggles and embodiment of the American Dream during the depression endeared him even more in films like City Lights and Modern Times.

I suppose there are other key players, but Chaplin is credited as producer, director, writer, and composer for The Kid. Jackie Coogan, cinema's first child star, would play Uncle Fester in "The Adams Family" as an adult. Chaplin's one-time paramour Edna Purviance also has a key role, while Chaplin's future wife Lita Grey has a small one.

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The Story:

The Kid is in most ways a deeply personal story, as it centers on a ghetto not unlike the streets of London where Chaplin grew up, and on an adoptive son of The Tramp, just after Chaplin's first son died three days after birth.

Purviance, as "The Woman," is booted out of a Charity Hospital for being an unwed mother. She leaves the infant in the backseat of a rich family's car with a note pleading "Please love and care for this orphan child." But the car is stolen by street hoodlums, who leave the baby in an alleyway after it starts to cry.

Cue The Tramp, who finds the bundle and looks quizzically into the sky. He tries to pawn off the bundle in a passing mother's crib, but gets an umbrella to the head for the effort. He reads the note and decides to adopt the child- there's a great moment when a neighbor asks the baby's name, and he has to leave and return before replying "John." The Woman goes back to the house and faints at the missing car.

Five years later, The Tramp and The Kid (now Coogan) are running a scheme where the latter throws rocks through people's windows just before the former, working as a glazier, happens to pass by. They get into a spot of trouble when they run the scam on a cop's wife, but otherwise live a shoestring life of domestic tenderness.

The Woman, now a famous opera singer, does regular charity in their very neighborhood, and wistfully looks on at the children- she even gives a toy to The Kid himself! The toys lead to one of my favorite sequences in the film:

I laughed the loudest when The Kid knocks down the bully for the last time.

Anyway, The Kid falls ill, and the doctor calls the welfare authorities- this leads to perhaps the most emotional scene in silent comedy history as The Tramp is restrained by cops as The Kid is taken away. Will they ever reunite?

The Artistry:

What's to say- I've seen the more expansive Modern Times, but there's a simplicity and honesty to The Kid that I like even more. Chaplin's expressive face (no offense to Groucho, but his greasepaint-affected visage didn't leave much room for subtlety) does as much work as any modern-day comedian without going over the top. He's just as funny harried avoiding a beating as he is casually using a hole in an old blanket as an impromptu poncho.

He and Coogan make a great duo, and a more moving tandem to root for than, say, Harold Lloyd and some rich girl he wants to impress.

The Kid departs in the late going into an odd dream sequence that re-envisions the ghetto as a gilded heavy where everyone wears white robes and angel wings, but it doesn't go on too long, and has its own funny moments.


The Tramp catches up with The Kid in a classic rooftop chase sequence:

The Woman meets the doctor, who has her original note, she puts it together and puts out a reward for anyone who can help locate her son. The Tramp and The Kid have put up in a flophouse for the night, but the proprietor sees the notice and carries off the sleeping Kid.

The Tramp, distraught, returns to the ghetto and falls asleep on the stoop for the aforementioned angel dream sequence. Finally the cop wakes him up, and takes him to The Woman's large house, where he's reunited with The Kid, and they all go inside, presumably to become a family.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I suppose I might need to wait until I see City Lights, The Great Dictator, and so on, but for a thousand times higher. What other film from 1921 could make me laugh this much? The Kid works across decades like the greatest literature, and (as a silent film) in a universal language.

The Legacy:

The Kid would be the second highest grossing film of 1921 (to The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse), launched a Coogan-based merchandising craze, and cemented Chaplin's future in longer features instead of short films. It's on all those AFI top 100 type lists, though not yet in the National Film Registry.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Seeing as I couldn't help myself with the clips above, just go here and watch the whole thing online. Since it's the only countdown entry made before 1923, it's entirely in the public domain according to the Copyright act of 1976. So it's legal, for once.

Leftover Thoughts:

-It's a shame Hitler stole the mustache and ran with it, though Chaplin more than paid him back with The Great Dictator. Still, if you go for The Tramp for Halloween you can't take off your hat the whole night.

-Is the National Film Registry hiring? Is there someone whose job it is to watch old films and make the call on inclusion?

Coming Up...

Tomorrow: 188. The Best Years Of Our Lives

Tue, June 1st: 187. The Exorcist

Fri, June 4th: 186. Kind Hearts and Coronets

This Week (and Last Week) In Actual Movie Taglines

Hey, I was totally sick for a little while there. Double taglines, with lots of countdown catch-up happening these next few days.

Shrek Forever After

Actual tagline: It's ain't ogre... til it's ogre

OR: What the Shrek just happened?

Ugh. Goodbye Shrek, and thanks for all the lame puns! The crowning of How To Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda as Dreamworks' new franchises really make this unwanted, unneccessary "final chapter" seem extra-stale on arrival.

And its arrival means officially that I can't go see Dragon in 3D again- I mean, I cut myself off a few weeks ago, sure, but this whole time I knew it was still there if I needed to go back. Now it's gone, and I have to wait until I can afford one of these crazy HD, 3D television things (and for 3D blu-rays to be invented) until I can experience it again! Dammit, Shrek!


Actual tagline: The Ultimate Tool

I bet that what it says on Will Forte's business cards, too: only rarely do I find him as wacky as I'm supposed to. It's like he's the human equivalent of wAckY CApS- just trying too hard.

I have no desire to see this, nor can I think of a single current recurring SNL-sketch that I'd prefer be made into a film.

Prince Of Persia: The Sands of Time

Actual tagline: Defy the Future

Fun with reverse implications: "Defy the Future, Obey the Past!" What? I love time travel, but something tells me Jerry Bruckheimer doesn't hold it to the same standards I do.

Sex and the City 2

Actual tagline: Carrie On

Yawn. Though the roundly eviscerating reviews have been endlessly entertaining so far. I would just suggest, based on what I've heard, that the title be changed to Marriage, Menopause, Children, and the Arabian Desert.

IMDB #190 The Hustler

Are some of us born winners, and some born losers? Is there a way to tell? 1961's The Hustler takes a dour, pool-filled road to finding out.

It's about when talent's not worth as half as much as character, when you have to sacrifice something to gain anything, and the people you have to hurt to get there. It's about winning, really winning, instead of waiting for an excuse to lose.

Plus, lots and lots of pool.

The Key Players:

Robert Rossen makes his only appearance on the countdown as our director. He would garner five Oscar nominations for this film and Best Picture winner All The King's Men all told, and might have made more classics if he hadn't been blacklisted as a former communist in the early 50's, and then put off filmaking altogether from working with Warren Beatty on Lillith.

The late, great Paul Newman with far too many roles to list: I'm sure we'll have time later. He also made a mean salad dressing.

Co-star Piper Laurie is a three time Oscar nominee most famous as Carrie's mom and as Catherine Martell on "Twin Peaks."

"The Honeymooners" tv legend Jackie Gleason has a small role, while George C. Scott (whose bravura turn in Patton we skipped due to countdown shuffling) steals the entire second half of the film.

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The Story:

Newman stars as "Fast Eddie" Felson, small-time pool hustler ready for a shot at the country's best, Minnesota Fats (Gleason). Surprisingly he and his partner Charlie get to this big match right away in the film.

Fats is a stolid, mirthless player, and Eddie starts beating him for $100 a game. Soon the stakes are raised to $500, $1,000, and they draw a crowd and the attention of Bert Gordon (Scott), Fats' bankroller and the boss of the pool hall.

Eddie had vowed to win $10,000 that night, and after some 24 hours of straight pool, he's up $11,400- Charlie tells him to stop. Of course he doesn't, but he's soon up $18,000. Surely he'll stop now, right?

Nope. An increasingly tired and whiskey-filled Eddie eventually loses everything but his original $200 stake- all that for nothing. Bert mocks him as a "born loser" as Charlie carries him away.

The next day, he ditches Charlie and meets Sarah Packard (Laurie), a sleepless "college girl" who fills her time between classes drinking away an allowance from an absent, rich father. He takes up with her, aimless, and rejects Charlie's pleas to go on the road again.

Bert Gordon tries to get him to play with new sponsorship (and for only a 25% cut), but Eddie turns him down, only to have his thumbs broken when he hustles a small-time pool shark. Sarah nurses him back to health and tells him she loves him, but he can't say it back.

Soon he reconsiders Bert's offer, and all three of them head to Louisville to hustle a rich billiard player- will Eddie earn a new stake to take on Fats? Will Sarah save him from where his life's clearly headed? Will the scheming Bert Gordon destroy their souls?

Stay tuned to find out!

The Artistry:

Among Newman's storied filmography, I've seen the breezier The Sting and Butch Cassidy, so I think I expected The Hustler to be in the same vein, but with pool.

And he does bring some of that bright comic energy, here and there, but this is largely a quiet, soul-searching, staring-in-the-mirror-while-drinking-from-the-bottle type of film.

Laurie and Newman's romance, purposefully emphasized over the pool-sharking (I wouldn't call The Hustler a sports film) has a magnetic trainwreck quality that seems familiar even as they give it their all. You know he's never going to say "I love you" in return, and she's never going to get him to give up his lifestyle.

It's a codependency we saw in a less hasty version in A Streetcar Named Desire, though at times less turbulent. They do take a picnic while he waits for his thumbs to heal, and though he slaps her once, early, she responds with a defiant "I bet you're waiting for me to cry."

Why she's drawn to the detached, moody, Eddie is hard to say- though I'm sure it helps that he looks just like a young Paul Newman. He sports more than a couple Marlon-Brando-tight tee shirts before donning a suit for the big matches.

For my part, I enjoyed George C. Scott as the wiseass businessman, who knows the angles and can seemingly tell the future. He doesn't become a true villain until the very end, and stands out more than Newman's archetypical antihero. Plus his voice is just so cool.

Jackie Gleason has maybe five lines- no idea why he would recieve an Oscar nomination for this role, other than voters being shocked that he doesn't crack a joke.


Eddie, after going in deep and losing his cool, turns Sarah away when she pleads a final time for him to stop- he finally wins, but he can sense that something between them has snapped. So he walks home to the hotel in Lousville.

Bert gets there first and makes a lecherous pass at Sarah, which she's too defeated to turn down. Then she kills herself. A distraught Eddie lunges at Bert, and we fade out.

Cut to some time later, as a stone-faced Eddie walks back in to take on Minnesota Fats again, $3,000 a game. He wins, over and over, of course, but he doesn't seem pleased. He needles a tense Bert: "We really stuck the knife in her, didn't we?"

Bert gets uppity and demands half of Eddie's winnings, still claiming to be his agent. But Eddie cowers him out of it with the shame of Sarah's death, and leaves a grim winner.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I'm not a superfan, mostly because I stray away from relentlessly dour things. But I'm going with higher, for some powerhouse acting and a meticulously expressive script.

The Legacy:

The Hustler was nominated for nine Oscars, including all four leading roles (Scott turned his down), lead to a resurgence of pool in the US, and is revered in all corners as a classic.

Paul Newman reprised the role in Martin Scorsese's sequel The Color Of Money in 1986 and won his only Oscar.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Paul Newman describes what it's like to be in the proverbial zone.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Jackie Gleason did a lot of his own shots. Maybe that's why.

-I had to look up the rules to Straight pool, which Eddie and Fats played. So that's why that guy kept going "125! That's game."

Coming Up...

Fri, May 21st: 189. The Kid

Tue, May 25th: 188. The Best Years Of Our Lives

Fri, May 28th: 187. The Exorcist

Monday Roundup 5/17/10


I'd just like to reiterate to all the real film bloggers and journalists out there how little I care about their reviews from Cannes- please keep you reviews short, spoiler free, and remind us when/where if the film in question will be released. Unless you're going to make it more of a personal diary- like Sasha Stone's tales of badge-caste-system woe, you posting your lengthy diatribes about films that the rest of us might never even see in theaters is just douche-y. Obviously there are exceptions, like Robin Hood opening Cannes right before its national release, but still.


Taglines! Last week we murdered by phone and met a pooka, this week we'll be hustling Minnesota Fats and adopting a loveable orphan.


Three ladies cast in a film entitled Wild Oats. The headline:
Actresses Love Their 'Oats'


Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club reviews Robin Hood and claims it has "a trebuchet-like pace." Which literally made me laugh out loud. Does that mean the pace takes a super-long time to reload? Does it move really fast at first, and then slowly rock back and forth as if on a wheeled base?


Robin Hood flops, finishing with 36m to Iron Man 2's 52m- this despite allegedly very similar budgets...

IMDB #191 Harvey

As a child, I was never prone to the whimsical deadpan effort (or the legitimate mental instability) necessary to invent and maintain an imaginary friend.

But today we can all wish we knew a certain 6'3.5" tall pooka named Harvyer, who we don't see but really get to know in the 1950 classic of the same name.

Best imaginary friend ever? (With the obvious exception of Joey from "Friends"'s childhood companion, a Space Cowboy named Maurice).

The Key Players:

Henry Koster was a German-born director most famous for this film, Three Smart Girls (a smash hit musical that saved Universal from banruptcy in 1936), and personally convincing Universal to sign Abbot and Costello after seeing them in a nightclub.

Jimmy Stewart pulls into a tie with Cary Grant for most countdown appearances with 4.

Josephine Hull would actually win Best Supporting Actress for this role as yet another sweet-natured aunt with a certifiable brother (though she doesn't poison anyone this time).

Peggy Dow, Charles Drake, Cecil Kellaway, Victoria Horne, Jesse White, and William Lynnn make up the rest of an ensemble cast.

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The Story:

Stewart stars as the easygoing, pleasant, and unfailingly polite Elwood P. Dowd, a rich eccentric prone to handing his card to everyone, inviting them for a drink, and introducing them to his friend, Harvey.

Harvey, we learn, is a giant talking rabbit seen only by Elwood, and his continual deference to his "friend" mortifies his older sister Veta (Hull) and her daughter Myrtle Mae. After Elwood ruins a society event they're hosting, Veta decides to finally have him commited to a sanitarium.

The visit to the sanitorium, Chumley's Rest, goes predictably awry however, when Veta admits to Dr. Sanderson that she's even imagined seeing Harvey once or twice herself (having phrased the general idea of the invisible rabbit in a way that doesn't make it clear that it's her brother's delusion to begin with). So she gets committed instead.

They let a bemused Elwood go- on his way out he loses track of Harvey, but he runs into the head doctor's wife, Mrs. Chumley, and tells her about his pooka friend. When she gets inside they realize their mistake, and set off to find him.

Following are a series of missed connections at various bars as they try to track Elwood down, and some inklings that Harvey may not be as imaginary as he seems...

The Artistry:

Harvey is, in a word, charming, and easily so on the strength of Jimmy Stewart's grinning laconicness. Among his countdown performances so far, he gives my second favorite performance (he was a struggling writer in The Philadelphia Story. It's an unfair bias).

The movie around him is a little tricky to classify in tone- it seems set up to be a screwball affair- an early stooge charged by a family friend to keep Elwood away from the party slips on a wet floor and goes sprawling, knocked unconscious. Certainly when they all run out to find Elwood in the city I expected many more hi-jinks, but instead they find him alone at a bar (no Harvey even), and he talks wistfully about how he met Harvey, and what he means to different people in a great monologue.

It's more dramatic depth than I would've bet on, and the Pulitzer prize for the Mary Chase play it's based on makes more sense the more I consider it (she also wrote the screenplay). Harvey is about being happy wherever you are, whomever you're with.


Small clues start to add together on the nature of our invisible friend: A hat with two large holes in the top, doors opening on their own, and a curious dictionary definition of "pooka" when orderly Mr. Wilson looks it up:

"From old Celtic mythology, a fairy spirit in animal form, always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one. A benign but mischievous creature. Very fond of rumpots, crackpots, and how are you, Mr. Wilson?" (cue the double take)

Finally it all adds up- head of the sanitorium Mr. Chumley even meets Harvey himself. Veta stops Elwood from getting an injection that might keep him from seeing things that aren't there, but will also take away his serene, happy nature. Myrtle Mae (concerned this whole time about ever finding a man) makes eyes at Mr. Wilson, Nurse Kelly and Dr. Sanderson reconcile a longstanding love/hate relationship, and Harvey even rejoins Elwood after it seems like he would stay with Dr. Chumley.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I think higher, especially since there aren't many movies with this sort of general affability anymore, and definitely not with a subtle philosophical bent.

The Legacy:

The play has been made for television a crazy six times, and Steven Spielberg recently contemplated making a new film- word is he backed off the idea when no one was willing to invite a comparison to Stewart by taking the role.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

The contemplative scene in the alley- though it is palookaless.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Hull deserves the Oscar, I think, because she had to toe the believing/not believing in Harvey line the entire film.

-Frow now on if anyone asks "Is there anything I can do for you?" I'm going to smile and respond "Well what did you have in mind?"

Coming Up...

Tue, May 18th: 190. The Hustler

Fri, May 21st: 189. The Kid

Tue, May 25th: 188. The Best Years Of Our Lives

This Week In Actual Movie Taglines

Robin Hood

Actual tagline: None.

Bah. Academy this, nominated that. I'm not that much of a sucker for awards baiting, poster. (Or am I? I'll probably see this, lackluster reviews and all).

Just Wright

Actual tagline: In this game... every shot counts.

That would be the game of looooooove, ladies and gentlemen. As opposed to professional basketball, where only every fourth shot counts, though on alternate Fridays and the day after a new moon it's every third shot (but the players can only shoot underhand).

For some reason, I assumed that "Wright" was the last name of the famous NBA star that falls for Queen Latifah, making the title pun at least a little feasible, but it's her character's surname after all. But maybe she's a famous physical therapist with name recognition, or something.

Letters To Juliet

Actual tagline: What if you had a second chance to find true love?

Rhetorical question alert! I love "questions" that are just there to tell you the basic plot. Is there an answer to that?

It's as if someone asked you: "What if you were a robot sent back in time to kill the mother of a future human resistance leader?" The response to both questions is an awkward "That nice, I guess?"

IMDB #192 Dial M For Murder

Do you think Alfred Hitchcock ever killed anyone? This is the second film of his we're getting to that deals specifically with the idea of a perfect murder, so clearly he gave it a lot of thought.

I'm just saying I wouldn't want him as an enemy. Consider that as we delve into his 1954 classic Dial M For Murder.

The Key Players:

I'm sure I needn't remind you that this is Hitchcock Part 3: With A Vengeance on the countdown.

We've also seen Ray Milland before, drinking himself into oblivion in The Lost Weekend. These intros are getting easier to write all the time!

It's the first time we've seen Grace Kelly, however- I'd remember. She's one of the most iconic figures in cinema despite making a meager 11 features before retiring at 26 to become Princess of Monaco. That list includes an Oscar nomination (Mogambo), a win (The Country Girl), and three highly regarded collaborations with some tubby British director with killing people on the brain.

Finally Robert Cummings was a prolific comic actor of both silver and small screens, but is remembered for key parts in a few dramas like this one, Kings Row, and Hitchcock's earlier Saboteur.

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The Story:

Dial M For Murder is filled with many long, expository discussions, which all lead up to a complex mystery that hinges on many specific details- I'll try to just sum it up.

Milland is married to Kelly, and Kelly's had an affair with Cummings. Milland finds out by stealing a letter she received from her paramour, then sending her fake blackmail notes in the hope it would lead her to confess, but it doesn't.

He then plans to have Kelly murdered by a old acquaintance from college that's fallen into a life of crime, by gathering dirt on the man and essentially forcing him.

The plan is, Milland will go with Cummings to a stag party (thus having an alibi), leave a key for the murderer, call the flat to get Kelly out of bed, whereupon she'll be strangled. Easy as pie, right?

Wrong: Kelly, in the midst of some very theatrical flailing, grabs a pair of scissors from the desk and stabs the man in the back, killing him, all of this while Milland is still on the phone.

Flabbergasted, he tells her to talk to no one, and touch nothing, until he gets there. Once he does, he calls the police and ushers her into bed, then does some quick thinking and rearranges a few key details:

1. He takes the key he left from the hitman's pocket and puts it back in Kelly's handbag.

2. He burns the stocking used in the failed attempt, and replaces it with one from Kelly's sewing kit (hiding the other under the desk-mat).

3. He places the stolen letter in the deadman's pocket.

But what does it mean? At this point the screen said "INTERMISSION," so I paused it and went to get a bagel.

The Artistry:

For such a talky film, Dial M For Murder is a lot of fun. I never thought they'd let Grace Kelly be strangled to death, really, but the drama leading up to the titular phone call (the number even starts with a 6, which totally has M in it!) is very well edited: Milland's watch stops, and the murderer nearly leaves before the phone rings at all. Then we're not sure if he's stayed or left when the nightgown-clad Kelly answers the phone by firelight.

The acting is all workable, with Milland in particular nailing the sort of erudite flippance that's more characteristic of Cary Grant (who actually wanted to play the part, but the studio vetoed the likable star as a villain). Kelly oversells the hysterics at times, but late in the film has a certain weariness that I found affecting.

Hitchcock shows a good command of light and shadow in composition without getting too noir-ish, I would say. The score struck me as a little rote and overloud, though.

But let's get to the end and see if the plot gets too ridiculous to bear.


So an inspector comes by to clear up the details of what happened- with no forced entry, her own stocking posited as the attempted murder weapon (Milland makes sure they find the other hidden in the desk), and her letter in the dead man's jacket, it looks like Kelly lured her supposed blackmailer to the flat and then stabbed him.

Sure enough, in a surreal montage of dialogue read to just Kelly's vacant stare, we hear a trial, conviction, and death sentence read out. Oh no!

But not to worry- not only does Cummings inadvertantly stumble on the truth by proposing that Milland tell the exact same story as a lie to save Kelly from execution the next day, the inspector has figured out that the key in Kelly's handbag was in fact the dead man's own key, and the real one was replaced outside the door.

Milland reveals himself after the inspector swipes his key, and he tries to use the false one (after reclaiming his wife's effects) and then finds the real one on the stairwell- for some reason the inspector seems to think that they can't prove anything if he doesn't find that key and open the door, when you'd think they had enough already (Milland had also been spending large amounts of cash that originally was meant to pay off the killer).

It ends very low key, as Milland just sighs and pours himself a drink, and offers Kelly and Cummings one as well. I liked the resolute way it was handled.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Definitely my favorite of the three so far, and a deserving countdown placeholder- my least favorite part might be the title, which is much cornier than the film itself.

The Legacy:

Remakes: two Bollywood versions, as well as 1998's A Perfect Murder, which makes the other man and assassin the same character.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Murder sequence! I would've hung up that phone way sooner than Kelly.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Ages of the pricinpal stars: Milland 49, Cummings 44, Kelly 25. But she easily holds her own.

-Cummings figured out the whole plot because he's a mystery writer. Did I not mention that?

-Dial M For Murder was originally shot in 3D, just as the craze was dying down, but not released that way until a resurgence of the format in the 80s. If you have any glasses handy (or you're an expert at crossing your eyes on command), you can even watch a 3D clip here.

Coming Up...

Fri, May 14th: 191. Harvey

Tue, May 18th: 190. The Hustler

Fri, May 21st: 189. The Kid

IMDB #193 Rosemary's Baby

If you're of my generation (the too-young for Generation X, too old for the annoying "Millenial" monicker mid-to-late-twentysomethings), then you may have reached a point in your life in which you've found a stable career, life partner, and home, and perhaps you're considering having a child.

But before you move the dusty treadmill and paint your new nursery a soothing yellow, Roman Polanski has a message you might want to consider first, and it's not just that men like Roman Polanski exist (boom!).

That's right, it's 1968's Rosemary's Baby!

The Key Players:

Roman Polanski is the Oscar winning director of The Pianist, Chinatown, Repulsion, and Tess. His dark, unsettling filmography is all but overshadowed by his dark, unsettling personal life, notably the murder of his second wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family, and his drugging and rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977- he somehow plea-bargained six criminal charges down to statuatory rape, but then fled the country when it looked like a modicum of jail time was imminent.

Star Mia Farrow is another whose professional career is less prominent in the pop consciousness than various tabloid-fodder relationships. Before her breakout role in Rosemary's Baby, she was popular for primetime sitcom "Peyton Place" and a high-profile marriage to 29-years-her-senior Frank Sinatra. Solid work like See No Evil and The Great Gasby in the 70s gave way to a long personal and professional relationship with Woody Allen during the 80s: resulting in several acclaimed films (like The Purple Role Of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters) and ending in a bitter mess of custody battles/adultery with stepchildren. She's settled into a late career of bringing it all in minor roles, as in Be Kind Rewind and the remake of The Omen (as a creepy older lady, in a fun reversal).

John Cassavetes (The Dirty Dozen), Sidney Blackmer (Heidi), and Ruth Gordon (A.K.A. Maude!) appear in support.

Click for More...

The Story:

A faithful adaptation of Ira Levin's bestselling horror novel, Rosemary's Baby follows young married couple Farrow and Cassavetes, housewife and struggling actor, respectively. They decide to move into the Bramford, an ancient Gothic NYC apartment building, despite the warnings of a friend that it has a history of witchcraft and suicide. Farrow reasons that "Awful things happen in every apartment house."

They're quickly set upon by nosy, loquacious neighbor Ruth Gordon, who invites them to dinner. Her husband (Blackmer) is considerably more stately and reserved, but Farrow is glad to get out of there. Cassavetes decides to return the next night, however, to talk theatre with the old man.

Soon, an actor that Cassavetes lost a key part to mysteriously goes blind- what luck! Though his newly bustling career leads to some distance between the couple, he suddenly agrees with Farrow's desire to have a child. They get all set to try, but Farrow gets dizzy after eating a dessert that Gordon had given them. Hmmm.

What follows is a disturbingly psychadelic dream (OR IS IT?) in which Farrow is undressed on a boat (maybe?) and then raped by a demonic creature.

She wakes to find scratches on her shoulders and back- Cassavetes admits with a wholly innapropriate smugness that he had his way with her after she passed out, and that "It was kinda fun in a necrophile sort of way." Ugh.

Farrow takes it in stride somehow, and soon discovers from a Dr. Hill (a super-young Charles Grodin) that she's knocked up. But her creepy elderly neighbors insist that she switch to a highly-regarded doctor friend of theirs, and that she avoid reading books about pregnancy, talking to her friends about pregnancy, and only take weird milshake-looking drinks Gordon prepares for her instead of vitamins.

At this point, our alarm bells have been ringing for a while, but Farrow is game for a while. At least until she develops a constant, sharp pain, and an acquaintance that seemed disturbed by her odd regimen and growingly gaunt appearance goes into a mysterious coma.

A few months later, he dies, but he leaves behind a book on witchcraft that he wanted her to have.

The Artistry:

I'm sure you can say this about every genre, but why don't horror films have atmosphere like this anymore? There isn't a single GOTCHA-type scare in Rosemary's Baby, yet it's a hugely unsettling film. Every moment is filled with a creeping dread, even the early happy moments.

It helps that the more fantastic elements of satanic cults and such are balanced by an even more compelling aggravating force: casual, pervasive sexism. Farrow plays Rosemary slightly naive, but it's only to make the late act shift (when no one believes the hysterical woman) hit you in the gut more.

She and Cassavetes have several of those power-trip, "well only if you really want to" conversations that seem filled with more malice than you'd expect, nicely foreshadowing his big betrayal. It's Farrow's wide-eyed earnestness and harrowed descent that really make this movie memorable.

The plot seems pretty standard, though I admire it for its restraint. One issue: can we call a moratrium on significant anagrams in movies? (Farrow discovers that Blackmer is the son of notorious occultist by scrambling his name). Maybe it wasn't a cliche in 1968, but it was the lamest part of the "big reveal" in Shutter Island. Just saying.


Anyway, it's totally a cult! The neighbors, the doctor, the other old lady from the twelth floor, everyone! They can even curse people with mental power (like the actor in Cassavetes' way, or the friend with doubts).

Rosemary pieces this mostly together, and flees to tell Dr. Hill, who of course just calls her husband. They drag her back home, where she goes into labor (did I mention it's 6/66 at this point? Subtle). They tell her the baby, her son, unfortunately died soon after the delivery, but she hears an infant crying nearby.

She finds a passage to the next apartment in the closet, where a horde of creepy smiling folks are attending something in a black crib. She looks down to find- "What have you done to it?! What have you done to its eyes?"

In a completely over-the-top declaration, Blackmer lets her know that she's delivered the spawn of the Devil, a speech he punctuates with a "Hail Satan!" here and there.

Cassavetes' tells her how much they got in return, which she greets with a spit to the face. But after some further moments of knife wielding hysteria, she goes to the crib, and comforts her wailing hellspawn. She's a mother now.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I may have expected a slightly bigger payoff- the titular baby isn't even seen, McGuffin style. It's not exactly that revelatory for the slow burning conspiracy theory to turn out...exactly right, and the film dumps a whole lot on Farrow to expect us to be happy without any payback at all.

But hey, you can't beat that insiduous, foreboding Polanski atmosphere. I say keep it in the top 200.

The Legacy:

Ruth Gordon won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, alongside a Screenplay nomination. Farrow was launched to legitimate movie stardom amidst several other award nominations.

There was also a wonderfully titled tv sequel, "Look What's Happened To Rosemary's Baby," and a recent plan for a Michael Bay-produced remake was thankfully scrapped.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Devil costumes and possibly boat-rapes are great and all, but there might be no part creepier than the melody over the opening credits. Observe:

Leftover Thoughts:

-This has to be high of the list of "Worst Films To See When Pregnant," along with Alien.

Coming Up...

Tue, May 11th: 192. Dial M For Murder

Fri, May 14th: 191. Harvey

Tue, May 18th: 190. The Hustler

This Week In Actual Movie Taglines

Iron Man 2

Actual tagline: none.

None? But how will I know what it's about? Has anyone heard anything about this "Ironed Man"?


Actual tagline: Everybody Loves... BABIES

Point-of-fact, poster: I do not love babies. I have nothing against them, per se, but babies do not inherently appeal to me on their own merits. They can't really do much of anything. Sorry.

The Human Centipede

Actual tagline: 100 % medically accurate

OR: Their flesh is his fantasy.

By special request (AKA Dave's insistence), this week we include an obscure horror film that may indeed expand to more than just one theater in the weeks to come, if purchasing agents can keep from gagging long enough to consider it.

The premise is simple enough- a mad scientist connects three people end to end to make a centipede-like creature. I don't think anyone buying a ticket is worried about the medical accuracy of the proceedings, but one of the taglines is here to reassure us.

And beyond the film's own promotional material, there are plenty of DVD-cover worthy reverse endorsements out there. Who wouldn't be intrigued by the following:

"Without question one of the most disgusting horror films ever made."
-Entertainment Weekly

"Almost more revolting to describe than to watch."
-The New York Times

"I don’t think I’d ever want to meet anyone who truly enjoyed it."
-The Newark Star-Ledger

Now you might say to yourself- "I'm going to vote with my purse-strings and not see this terrible film, even if it comes to my town!" And that's your right. But it hardly matters: there's already a sequel in the works.

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