“Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.”
[Phillips Holmes in An American Tragedy, realizing he really does hate that grasping little factory girl and would be much happier drowning her.]
From 1931: «An American Tragedy» with Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee. The first cinematic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same name, it was eventually remade as a more famous film in 1951 starring Montgomery Clift, Shirley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor: A Place in the Sun.
But this version has much to recommend it. Except the sound. The sound is like what Singin’ in the Rain was parodying. Sound in motion pictures wasn’t yet refined, so everything in the pic, especially background noise, is loud and excruciating. In the courtroom scene when the D.A. pounds his fist on the bannister in front of the accused, the resounding thuds shook the walls. Meanwhile, whole sections of dialogue were hard to pick up. Just a quibble.
“A social climber charms a debutante, seduces a factory worker and commits murder.”
“An American Tragedy was remade in 1951 with Montgomery Clift in the role played here by Holmes but, while this version isn’t without its faults (which are due more to its age rather than any inherent flaws). it’s far superior to the Clift version, even though Griffith (or Eastman, as he was called in the later version), is a much more sympathetic character in the second movie. Holmes’s version is selfish and manipulative, and yet we never entirely lose some level of sympathy for him. Deep down he’s not a bad person, but he falls victim—like Roberta—to his own cowardice and weakness of character. These character flaws are gradually and painfully exposed during the trial, a lengthy sequence which was once one of the film’s strengths but which appears a little far-fetched and overacted today. The grandstanding acting style of Charles Middleton (Flash Gordon’s nemesis, Ming the Merciless) and Irving Pichel is a real drawback which isn’t helped by the way Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay call upon them to almost engage in fisticuffs. Overall though, An American Tragedy stands up well for its age.”
Dreiser’s work, and therefore the two films, was based on the real life murder of «Grace Brown by Chester Gillette» in an upper New York lake on 11-Jul-1906. Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.
Both movie versions were faithful to the book and real life, as far as these things go. The real life event could stand the Erik Larson deep dive nonfiction treatment, to see how and where Dreiser departed from events. For the 1931 film, Holmes manages to make you want to both hug him and strangle him. Sadly, Holmes’ extensive career, including an appearance in the Our Gange feature General Spanky, came to an end thanks to World War II. He had just completed flight training in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was being transferred from Winnipeg to Ottawa, when the transport he was riding in collided in mid air with another aircraft over Ontario. He was only 35.
Well, there’s not any from the movie, really. These are from the book:
“Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement.” “
An American Tragedy (book)
“And they were always testifying as to how God or Christ or Divine Grace had rescued them from this or that predicament—never how they had rescued any one else.”
“For in some blind, dualistic way both she and Asa insisted, as do all religionists, in disassociating God from harm and error and misery, while granting Him nevertheless supreme control. They would seek for something else—some malign, treacherous, deceiving power which, in the face of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, still beguiles and betrays—and find it eventually in the error and perverseness of the human heart, which God has made, yet which He does not control, because He does not want to control it.”
An American Tragedy. 1931. TCM. English. Josef von Sternberg, Hans Dreier (d). Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee, Irving Pichel, Frederick Burton, Clair McDowell, Charles Middleton, Arnold Korff. (p). John Leipold, Ralph Rainger (m). Lee Garmes (c).
“Thieves’ Highway is a classic Noir tale of truckers and apples and greed and sex and San Francisco and California and highways and death.”
["Let me smoke your butt, Nick!" Valentina Cortese and Richard Conte in Thieves' Highway. Take that Bogie and Bacall!]
From 1949: «Thieves’ Highway». We weren’t really planning to watch, but were drawn in immediately. I think we had seen it before, but it’s been a long while. Glad we watched. Ironically, Valentina Cortese just passed away on 10-Jul of this year. Watching her performance here was fitting, and showed just how big of a loss was her passing.
Thieves’ Highway is a classic Noir tale of truckers and apples and greed and sex and San Francisco and California and highways and death. Besides the fabulous Valentina Cortese and Richard Conte, it features Lee J. Cobb in a dress rehearsal for his role in On the Waterfront, Jack Oakie and Millard Mitchell, who would be seen six years later in the classic Singin’ in the Rain, as the movie producer R.F. Simpson.
“Nick Garcos comes back from his tour of duty in World War II planning to settle down with his girlfriend, Polly Faber. He learns, however, that his father was recently beaten and burglarized by mob-connected trucker Mike Figlia, and Nick resolves to get even. He partners with prostitute Rica, and together they go after Mike, all the while getting pulled further into the local crime underworld.”
“Like the movie’s rattletrap trucks lurching down the highway as they carry way-too-heavy loads, the characters in Jules Dassin’s brilliantly volatile Thieves’ Highway struggle under psychological and moral baggage until they can lay their burdens down. Working from a novel and script by A.I. Bezzerides, Dassin made this swift, fluid melodrama in 1949, after Brute Force and The Naked City. … it has a rich sensuality all its own.
… “All the symbols in this movie are rock-hard and understated. The white military star on Nick’s truck makes a mute, omnipresent comment on postwar disillusion. And each time you hear “Golden Delicious,” the image it conjures of Olympian delight contrasts sardonically with the perils of the road and the savage competition of the San Francisco marketplace.”
Michael Sragow, The Criterion Collection
(I love how Sragow introduces Nico: “Garcos … has sailed around the world without ever getting worldly.” HA!)
He then notes the inner workings of the film and places it in context:
“Dassin … is just as deft as Kazan in Boomerang! (1947) or Panic in the Streets (1950) at using real locations for knifelike verisimilitude, then catching their most far-out and surprising emotional repercussions.” … “Dassin begins scenes with compositions that border on cliché–whether of a cheerful Fresno suburb or the bustling streets and crowded pier-side haunts of San Francisco’s marketplace. But each time, he punctures the cliché with cascades of complex details emerging spontaneously from the conflicted drives of the characters and the life-or-death stakes of their situations.”
Sragow, writing 1-Feb-05, then notes something that is culturally a hot button right now: toxic masculinity:
“Under Dassin’s direction, Conte here minted a fresh leading-man archetype-a rough-edged, virile naïf, containing equal amounts of violent distrust and gallantry. And Mitchell brings deep-grained orneriness to Ed, a summa cum laude from the school of hard knocks, willing to rook others to satisfy his sense of justice. What gives this movie its charge isn’t just the physical danger of the road and the injustice perpetrated when fixers like Figlia use dirty tricks on truckers and buyers—it’s the psychological drama of men tossed off balance by want and need as they strive to achieve equilibrium.” … “Ed pulls Nick out from under his truck after Nick botches a tire change and gets his face buried in sand. When the older man bandages his neck, and these two finally forge a bond, Nick mutters that passersby might get the wrong idea.”
Pretty advanced for 1949, but like the ending, it gets set right: Nothin’ but manly man hetero stuff … 1949’s equivalent of “No Homo.”
And just so we’re clear that Conte/Mitchell and Oakie/Pevney are just no homo bros, in comes Rico to keep the men manly. Curiously, she’s rather butch, both in her toughness and her physical, trenchcoat-wearing appearance. In fact she’s sporting a short Italian haircut (which would be the focus of an I Love Lucy episode in a few years), which accentuates her Italian “earthiness,” (also the focus of an I Love Lucy episode in a few years). AND her character was originally named “Tex.” (See the paragraph about Hope Emerson below for more on this stuff.) Sragow sums it up:
“Played by Valentina Cortese with dazzling emotional clarity and erotic warmth, she’s at once this film’s beating heart and the center of its existential concerns–she dares Nick to trust his instincts and trust her, despite her shady deal-making and background.”
The review is also interesting because it delves into the writing:
“Bezzerides’ writing at its peak boasts a dynamic blend of iconoclasm and bitterness–an ideal combination for the intersection of kinetics and moodiness that is film noir. … “Bezzerides objected to several alterations to his book and deplored the casting of Dassin’s then-girlfriend Cortese in a role originally called “Tex.” But in movie terms, he was incorrect on every count–to use his phrase, the only truly “chickenshit change” was a studio-inserted scene in which cops berate Nick for taking the law into his own hands. Cortese’s sometimes comical, sometimes poignant, always live-wire oomph makes this proletariat adventure unique and gives it the ravaged soul and earthy glamour of a demimonde romance. No gal in movies has ever looked sexier or more good-humored drying her hair after a shower. When Nick says Rica has “soft hands,” she says she has “sharp claws.” She uses them only to play tic-tac-toe on his chest–a fitting game for a film in which one false move can turn ethical and commercial triumph into disaster.”
In a shorter review, «John Chard» agrees with Sragow, and adds that the chicken shit ending, tacked on to appease the Production Code’s moralists, is ridiculous:
“Revenge, hope and desperation drives Dassin’s intelligently constructed noir forward. It’s a film very much interested in its characterisations as it doles out a deconstruction of the American dream. … Dassin and Bezzerides push a revenge theme to the forefront whilst deftly inserting from the sides the devils of greed and corruption of the California produce business. “The trucks’ journey is brilliantly captured by the makers, both exciting and exuding the menace of the hard slog for truckers. … [once in San Francisco] underhand tactics come seeping out and the appearance of prostitute Rica (Cortese) into Nico’s life adds a morally grey area that pings with sharp dialogue exchanges. Real location photography adds to the authentic feel of the story, and cast performances are quite simply excellent across the board. “The code appeasing ending hurts the film a touch, inserted against Dassin’s wishes, and there’s a feeling that it should have been more damning with the economic tropes; while the fact that Nico’s father is more concerned about being robbed of money than losing the use of his legs – is a bit strange to say the least. However, from a graveyard of tumbling apples to the fact that more than money is stolen here, Thieves’ Highway is sharp, smart and engrossing stuff.”
John Chard, TMDb
Sharp, smart, engrossing … and for us LGBTQ+ viewers, chock full of forbidden fruit.
We loved this one. Having spent many years in the Bay Area, we could relate to much of the scenery and sensibilities and subtext.
And speaking of subtext again, worth noting is the appearance of the wonderful Hope Emerson, a career character actor with a long list of credits, including Adam’s Rib in the same year as Thieves’ Highway. In Adam’s Rib, she played a very talented gymnast in a courtroom, in a role that noted both how big and butch she was, in an era when that kind of thing was invisible. She is somewhat the same in Thieves’ Highway, minus the gymnastics, as a very tough female fruit buyer. Dassin pretty much broke the Code in multiple ways throughout the movie; although the Code had the last say with its smarmy cop platitudinal lecturing about not taking the law in your own hands, the weight of his film said, “Nuts to you!” to the Code.
A good pairing for this would be The Grapes of Wrath, which starts with starving Okies hitting Route 66 in search of fruit picking work. Follow that with Thieves’ Highway and you get a clear picture of what it takes to get an apple off a tree into the teeth of someone wanting to cheat a doctor a day.
Sadly, much is unchanged in this process, except the grower, the picker, the trucker and the distributor-to-grocery-stores are all corporate behemoths and conditions may, if anything, be worse than 1940’s Grapes of Wrath and 1949’s Thieves’ Highway. We’ve let much slide since Reagan, who married anti-New Deal propaganda with our generation’s laziness and produced massive rollbacks of workers’ rights (and the current occupant of the White House), and our grandchildren will have to fight three times as hard as their ancestors between 1870 and 1950 did for decency, living wages, respect, clean air, clean water, and safe working conditions. Whether they will do it remains to be seen.
Nico ‘Nick’ Garcos: [to Rica] “You look like chipped glass.”
Nick: “Hey, do you like apples?” Rica: “Everybody likes apples, except doctors.” Nick: “Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out.” Rica: “I don’t know what are you talking about, but I have a new respect for apples.”
Thieves Highway. 1949. TCM. English. Jules Dassin (d); A.I. Bezzerides (w); Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence, Jack Oakie, Millard Mitchell, Joseph Pevney, Morris Carnovsky, Tamara Shayne, Kasia Orzazewski, Norbert Schiller, Hope Emerson (p). Alfred Newman (m). Norbert Brodine (c).
“It’s a magnificent bit of cinema and well-worth watching, especially on this day. It freshly reminds you of just exactly how incredible the achievement of half-a-billion people, represented by three men, was, in an incredibly difficult decade.”
[Is my lipstick on straight? Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking first pics on the moon in Apollo 11. Houston, there's no Fotomat around here!]
From 2019: «Apollo 11». It’s the 50th anniversary, in case you hadn’t heard, of humans on the moon, so this is an appropriate thing to do. We missed it on IMAX back in March, but it’s still pretty awesome on a home UHF bigscreen.
“A look at the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon led by commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin.” —TMDb
And CMP Michael Collins, it should be added.
It’s a magnificent bit of cinema and well-worth watching, especially on this day. It freshly reminds you of just exactly how incredible the achievement of half-a-billion people, represented by three men, was, in an incredibly difficult decade.
This one also stands out because of fresh, never-released footage and the filmmakers’ approach.
Sandra Hall «noted» its rejection of typical documentary or cinema techniques which would have landed it solidly in the middle of the pack of 50-year anniversary docs:
“Miller uses no voiceover. Nor are there contemporary interviews looking back on the mission and its legacy. Thanks to the vividness of the footage and some inspired editing, he has succeeded in recapturing the atmosphere of the time. The air of immediacy he’s conjured up entices you into accepting the illusion that the mission happened only yesterday. … “Nor is there any of the heightened drama that fiction has bestowed on those crucial seconds as Armstrong finessed the touchdown, switching to manual control and straining to avoid the large boulders and the crater in their path. “It was hair-raising and last year’s Armstrong biopic, The First Man, made the most of it by filling the scene with flashing red lights and a chorus of warning bleeps before a visibly rattled Ryan Gosling felt safe enough to smile. “Yet this film tells us that the moment was remarkable only for its aura of unshakeable calm. The voices sound untroubled. The only sign of tension is the arrow on the fuel gauge as it moves inexorably towards the empty sign.” —Sydney Morning Herald
An aside, because it’s 20-July: Why did Kennedy always seem to pronounce “decade” as “deh-KADE” instead of the usual “DECK-ade“? A Bahston chowduh thing? We’ll never know, but probably hear it every year of our lifetimes.
Best quote: Not, surprisingly, the obvious Armstrong first one, but:
“Beautiful view … Magnificent desolation.”
Apollo 11. 2019. Online. English. Todd Douglas Miller (d); Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Cliff Charlesworth, Michael Collins, Walter Cronkite, Charles Duke, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Gene Kranz, Jim Lovell, Bruce McCandless, Richard Nixon, Deke Slayton (p).
“Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).”
["Curfew shall not ring tonight!" Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set. A RomCom about 30somethings played by 50somethings falling in love under the benevolent gaze of EMERAC.]
From 1957: «Desk Set», my personal favorite among the nine Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films. Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).
“A computer expert tries to prove his electronic brain can replace a television network’s research staff.”
I’m beginning to think The MovieDb folks need better synopsis writers.
“Desk Set catches them 15 years into their affair and 10 years before Tracy’s death. You can sense their level of comfort with each other—something that actually works against them in a romantic comedy in which opposites and antagonists are supposed to eventually attract. Tracy plays Mr. Sumner, an efficiency expert hired by the Federal Broadcasting Company to find departments in which his new-fangled computers (the size of a room, by the way) might save work-hours. Hepburn is Bunny Watson, who runs the research department rather than the always-absent boss (Gig Young) with whom she’s been having a seven-year relationship … waiting for a ring and running out of patience.
“The formula is pretty basic, but it’s the characters (and the actors) that make “Desk Set” fun to watch. It might also be one of the best films to document those legendary wild office parties from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with everyone imbibing so much Christmas cheer that they all start to get a bit of a Rudolph nose.
“Desk Set” weaves machines vs. humans and gender-role themes into a pleasant battle-of-the-sexes film that feels more leisurely than most gender bender scripts that come out of Hollywood. This adapted screenplay, interestingly enough, comes from the pens of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose daughter, Nora, would receive Oscar nominations for her own work (“Silkwood,” When Harry Met Sally…,” “Sleepless in Seattle”). The script gives Tracy and Hepburn just enough to work with, and whatever charm that “Desk Set” has comes from the two stars and their interaction with each other and a decent supporting cast. Joan Blondell is particularly funny as Bunny’s sometimes abrasive co-worker, with Dina Merrill and Sue Randall also cutting up in the research department.”
James Plath, Movie Metropolis
Joan Blondell is fabulous as always and the film marks an appearance by Sue Randall, who would later play Beaver’s teacher on Leave It to Beaver. Neva Patterson is awesomely uptight and Dina Merrill is far too glamorous to be a research assistant, but it works. The would-be pairing of Gig Young and Katharine Hepburn is a bit far-fetched, and both Kate and Spencer seemed just a little long in the tooth for a RomCom, but those are quibbles. It works and works raucously well.
A short bit about a rainstorm and a guy from legal and his wife, kids and mother-in-law is hilarious and reminds you of I Love Lucy. But the best bit is a silent one by Ida Moore, an unnamed “Old Lady” who wanders in from time-to-time, checking out a book or enjoying the spiked punch at the office Christmas party. Supposedly, she was, way back in the day, the original model for the giant sculpture which is Federal’s logo, and she has had the run of the place ever since. Ida Moore does this with such aplomb and excellence that even Kate seems to be in her shade.
Besides the “Mexican Avenue Bus,” there are many great lines/bits:
Bunny Watson: “Have some tequila, Peg.”
Peg Costello: “I don’t think I should. There are 85 calories in a glass of champagne.”
Bunny Watson: “I have a little place in my neighborhood where I can get it for 65.”
Richard Sumner: “Hello? Santa Claus’s reindeer? Uh, why yes I can… let’s see, there’s Dopey, Sneezy, Grouchy, Happy, Sleepy, uh Rudolph, and Blitzen! You’re welcome!”
Bunny Watson: “Just for kicks. You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. I mean, don’t dwell on the question, but I warn you there’s a trick in it: If six Chinamen get off a train at Las Vegas, and two of them are found floating face down in a goldfish bowl, and the only thing they can find to identify them are two telephone numbers – one, Plaza Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh, and the other, Columbus Oh-1492 – what time did the train get to Palm Springs?”
Richard Sumner: “Nine o’clock.”
Bunny Watson: “Now, would you mind telling me how you happened to get that?”
Richard Sumner: “Well, there are eleven letters in Palm Springs. You take away two Chinamen, that leaves nine.”
Bunny Watson: “You’re a sketch, Mr. Sumner.”
Richard Sumner: “You’re not so bad yourself.”
Bunny Watson: “I don’t smoke, I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone… and so do you.”
Richard Sumner: “How do you know that?”
Bunny Watson: “Because you’re wearing one brown sock and one black sock.”
And of course my personal favorite, Curfew Shall Not a-Ring Tonight!:
Richard Sumner: [Watching the computer result on “Corfu”, which is mistaken as “curfew”] What the devil is this?
Bunny Watson: [Also having a look] It’s the poem, “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.” Isn’t that nice? [reciting] “Cromwell will not come till sunset, and her lips grew strangely white… as she breathed the husky whisper, curfew must not a-ring tonight.”
Miss Warriner: [while Bunny goes on] Mr. Sumner, what can I do?
Richard Sumner: Nothing. You know you can’t interrupt her [the computer] in the middle of a sequence.
Miss Warriner: Yes, but, Mr. Sumner…
Richard Sumner: Quiet! Just listen.
Bunny Watson: “She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh, at the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die.”
Richard Sumner: Uh, how long does this go on?
Bunny Watson: That old poem has about 80 stanzas to it.
Richard Sumner: Where are we now?
Bunny Watson: “She has reached the topmost ladder. O’er her hangs the great dark bell, awful is the gloom beneath her like the pathway down to hell. Lo, the ponderous tongue is swinging. ‘Tis the hour of curfew now, and the sight has chilled her bosom, stopped her breath and paled her brow.”
Bunny Watson: “Shall she let it ring? No, never! Flash her eyes with sudden light, as she springs and grasps it firmly…
[answers the phone]
Bunny Watson: …curfew shall not ring tonight!”
Bunny Watson: They hung up. And I know another one! “Out she swung, far out, the city seemed a speck of light…”
Desk Set. 1957. TCM. English. Walter Lang (d); Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron, William Marchant (w) Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Neva Patterson, Henry Ellerbe, Nicholas Joy, Diane Jergens, Merry Anders, Ida Moore, Rachel Stephens, Don Porter, Sammy Ogg (p). Cyril J. Mockridge (m). Leon Shamroy (c).
“There’s a lot more than just smiles to recommend this one–ts droll English humor, its glimpse at fashions and designs and trends of 1968, the fantastic acting of everyone, including the performance of Bob Newhart, whose movie outings are often forgotten, the sarcastic wit and the satire–it’s a long list and will need a second viewing to get it all.”
[How veddy British! Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith in Hot Millions. Also, how veddy Sixties!]
From 1968: «Hot Millions». Some fun British fun from Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith.
True story. The very first time I ever went to a theater and saw a movie was in February 1968 at the Plains Theater in Roswell, NM. Which is sadly now the “International UFO Museum and Research Center” 1947 alien landing tourist trap and that’s upsetting and rather terrifying. But upsetting and terrifying is what my first movie experience was; my four-year-old self bawled all the way through it and I think my sister had to take me to the lobby.
The list of things that scared me was long in those days; well into my teens, I was pretty much scared of everything. No reason; I had a good childhood, wasn’t abused or anything. But movie theaters, especially high ceilings and balconies, terrified me. So did fire engines, police cars, motorcycles, Walt Disney, sirens, fireworks, Carlsbad Caverns, roller coasters, teachers and teenagers.
But what was the most terrifying of all was the first movie in a theater: Blackbeard’s Ghost, starring Peter Ustinov. It was a funny kid’s Disney movie, typical of the time, with Dean Jones, Suzanne Pleshette, Elsa Lanchester, Elliot Reid, Richard Deacon and Michael Conrad, in his pre-Hill Street Blues days.
And the worst scene was Ustinov as Blackbeard, riding a police motorcycle with siren blaring, invisible to everyone except Dean Jones. I really bawled at that. Even if it was about the funniest one in the movie. Sirens, invisible pirates, a huge theater, yeesh.
At any rate, Hot Millions is what we’re actually talking about here.
“A con-artist (Peter Ustinov) gains employment at an insurance company in order to embezzle money by re-programming their “new” wonder computer.”
“Today I would like to bow to another critic for my opening thought. Writing about Hot Millions in the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann observed that it didn’t make him laugh out loud, but at the end of the film he realized he’d been smiling for nearly two hours. That says it very well: Hot Millions, which is not a hilarious comedy, is a pleasant, warm one.
“The warmth comes because the characters are developed rather more than is usually the case in movies about (a) embezzlers or (b) eccentrics. The British comedy tradition accounts for these two genres quite completely; eccentrics are usually Terry-Thomas whistling through the gap in his teeth, and embezzlers usually try for a sort of efficient anonymity.
“This is not, I suppose, a great comedy. But Ustinov and Miss Smith act with a sort of natural appeal, and there are moments you will enjoy very much. Especially recommended for computer programmers, their accomplices and their molls.”
I personally don’t need my sides to split when I watch a “comedy,” but that’s just me. There’s a lot more than just smiles to recommend this one–ts droll English humor, its glimpse at fashions and designs and trends of 1968, the fantastic acting of everyone, including the performance of Bob Newhart, whose movie outings are often forgotten, the sarcastic wit and the satire–it’s a long list and will need a second viewing to get it all.
Carlton J. Klemper [talking about his corporation taking over the whole world]: “Yes sir! When the time comes, I may even put in a bid for all of England.”
Marcus Pendleton: }Hadn’t you better wait till it’s solvent?”
Prison Governor: “You should be in politics, not in prison.”
Marcus Pendleton: “Well, in a way, I was, wasn’t I? When they caught me embezzling at the Conservative Central Office.”
Prison Governor: “Yes, I could never understand why you chose that of all places.”
Marcus Pendleton: [after a pause, says sternly] “I’m a Liberal.”
Prison Governor: “Oh.”
Elderly Gentleman card player: [Irritated by all the talk] “If this keeps up, I shall violate a lifetime principle and play bridge with women.”
Patty: “What does he want?”
Patty: “What are they?”
Marcus: “Young female donkeys.”
Hot Millions. 1968. TCM. English. Eric Till (d). Peter Ustinov, Ira Wallach (w). Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Karl Malden, Bob Newhart, Robert Morley, Cesar Romero, Peter Jones, Ann Lancaster, Patsy Crowther. (p). Laurie Johnson (m). Kenneth Higgins (c).
“It’s hard to think of a better illustration of the end of the European theater of war free of the pernicious and ubiquitous American boo-yah of so many countless war films.”
From 1959: «Die Brücke (The Bridge)». Sure it’s an anti-war war film. But it also works as horror: you know what these teens are about to suffer as the film moves from happy school days with worries about English class, liquor, a boat and some girls to its inevitable conclusion, and you want to shout, “Don’t go in that basement [on that bridge]!” For a first-time film director, Bernhard Wicki sure knew what he was doing. This is German cinema at its finest.
“A group of German boys are ordered to protect a small bridge in their home village during the waning months of the second world war. Truckloads of defeated, cynical Wehrmacht soldiers flee the approaching American troops, but the boys, full of enthusiasm for the “blood and honor” Nazi ideology, stay to defend the useless bridge.”
I paired it with Ich war Neunzehn, the East German/Russian film about a 17-year-old Red Army lieutenant’s last days of the war north of Berlin. It’s hard to think of a better illustration of the end of the European theater of war free of the pernicious and ubiquitous American boo-yah of so many countless war films. With these two films, you get rare perspectives of both the end of the war and of the beginning of the peace; Die Brücke illustrates the final gotterdamerung of the Reich and Ich war Neunzehn illustrates the post-gotterdamerung of East German communism overseen by Russian propaganda.
While I still dearly love Der Untergang (2004), it and so many other films tell the same old stories of the major characters of the war. These two films however show what life was like for millions of ordinary people. Die Brücke barely mentions Hitler and Churchill, and they are far off and far removed from the school boys’ mundane cares. Ich war Neunzehn doesn’t mention Stalin. They both allude to the systems of fascism and communism, but that’s not the focus. The result in both cases is refreshing. Instead we see real human beings surviving or dying without madeup actors with little clipped mustaches and their historical names in print below to tell viewers this madeup actor is Hitler or Stalin or Churchill.
David M. Keyes of «Cinemaphile» describes Die Brücke this way:
“The bridge persists as a stubborn link between a decaying empire and imminent liberation, defended enthusiastically by seven young men on the precipice of mortal danger. They wear masks that distort their notion of the inevitable, but not merely out of ignorance; they have been molded by the vehement enthusiasm of nationalism, which remains unchanged even after buildings have crumbled and soldiers have been erased from the battlefields. Most of them are all too eager to step in as defenders of their treasured Reich, though the faces of their parents reflect a more anxious concern. “In one notable moment, for instance, one of the mothers tearfully pleas with her son to ignore the drafting letter he has received, insisting that he flee to the country to stay with relatives. He declines, grinning the whole way, which places emphasis on the underlying conflict: can these teenage boys be faulted for being slaves to the pure and idealistic, even as the possibilities of triumph seem lost in a haze of downtrodden confessions? Perhaps it is more sobering to see them as symbols of the uncultivated, especially under the rule of the Nazis: because this essentially made them the most expendable in an impending fight against enemy combatants, an obligatory defeat only aggravates the wound created by their destructive occupation.”
I’ll come back again and again to this one, and to Ich war Neunzehn; next time, I’ll view them back-to-back on the same night.
Die Brücke. 1959. Criterion Collection. German with English subtitles. Bernhard Wicki (d); Manfred Gregor (novel); Folker Bohnet, Fritz Wepper, Michael Hinz, Frank Glaubrecht, Karl Michael Balzer, Volker Lechtenbrink, Günther Hoffmann, Cordula Trantow, Wolfgang Stumpf, Günter Pfitzmann, Heinz Spitzner, Siegfried Schürenberg, Ruth Hausmeister, Eva Vaitl, Edith Schultze-Westrum, Hans Elwenspoek, Trude Breitschopf, Klaus Hellmold, Inge Benz, Til Kiwe, Edeltraut Elsner, Vicco von Bülow, Georg Lehn, Johannes Buzalski, Heini Göbel, Alexander Hunzinger, Alfons Teuber (a).
“‘On Crimes and Punishments‘ was the first attempt to apply principles of political economy to the practice of punishment so as to humanise and rationalise the use of coercion by the state. After all, arbitrary and cruel punishment was the most immediate instrument that the state had to terrorise the people into submission, so as to avoid rebellion against the hierarchical structure of the society. The problem that Beccaria faced, then, was the simple fact that the elite had complete control of the law, which was a family business and a highly esoteric language that only the initiated could master. The path leading to the rational reform of penal law required a fundamental philosophical rethinking of the role and place of law in society.”
“Konrad Wolf’s 1968 feels like a real 1945; he takes us back to his youth and we’re submerged in the fog that he had to navigate through once upon a time.”
From 1968: «Ich war Neunzehn (I Was Nineteen)». Mesmerizing. Intense. Now in my top ten of all time. Yes, it’s Ostie/DDR propaganda sucking up to the Russians. And it’s very well done, transcending the (now deceased) confines of the DDR strait jacket.
“April 1945: Gregor Hecker, 19 years of age, reaches the outskirts of Berlin as part of the Red Army’s scouting team. Having fled Germany with his family when he was eight, he is confronted with the dilemma of having to fight men from the very country he was born in. Through dealing with challenging situations (e.g. he is appointed commander of Bernau, talks to many disillusioned Germans, and is once and again attacked by scattered groups of German soldiers), he grows more confident that not all hope is lost for post-war Germany.”
As a reviewer at DVD Talk puts it, ” The DEFA was responsible for some very creative films, but it was still under the auspices of a Communist GDR, so there’s the inevitable Stalinist propaganda. The Russians are naturally portrayed as the heroes of the war, and made to be the biggest victims of the war. ” The reviewer, Daniel Siwek, goes on:
Konrad Wolf’s 1968 feels like a real 1945; he takes us back to his youth and we’re submerged in the fog that he had to navigate through once upon a time. It spends a lot of time repeating it’s points and questions, but when you consider the subject matter, isn’t that the way it really is as well? It’s hyped as one of Germany’s greatest films, and while I’m no expert in Deutsche cinema, I can understand that it’s definitely a film that deserves to be examined and appreciated.
Well worth having it in a collection and re-viewing it every once in awhile. Russian/German with English subtitles.
Ich war Neunzehn. 1968. Criterion Collection. German/Russian with English subtitles. Konrad Wolf (d). Wolfgang Kohlhaase (w). Jaecki Schwarz, Vasiliy Livanov, Rolf Hoppe, Galina Polskikh, Jürgen Hentsch, Kurt Böwe, Hermann Beyer, Mikhail Gluzskiy, Jenny Gröllmann, Wolfgang Greese, Johannes Wieke, Fritz Mohr, Otto Lang, Aleksey Eybozhenko, Anatoliy Solovyov, Klaus Manchen, Walter Bechstein, Afanasi Kochetkov, Dieter Mann, Wolfgang Winkler, Martin Trettau (a).